I’m one of those people who remember what the US airlines were like in the years before deregulation. Back then, a flight was a special occasion, where you dressed up and received the best of care, even in economy class.
But decades of cost cutting, bankruptcies, and mergers have left airlines pinching pennies in every corner, including labour. These factors have taken a toll on flight attendants.
Today it’s not unusual for travellers to complain about air travel, but flight attendants often unfairly bear the brunt of the blame for a perceived lack of customer service and civility in the skies.
Sandy Stein was a flight attendant for Western Airlines and Delta Air Lines for a combined 40 years before retiring. “I started in 1971 when I was 20 years old. I was cute, bubbly and ready for any experience that came my way and Western Airlines provided just that,” she says.
Those were the days when service was actually service, Stein recalls. “When I flew for Western, we’d have tons of charters from Las Vegas to Honolulu. We’d sometimes be delayed for two or three hours and folks were laid back [about it].”
Today, passengers are edgy, and some flight attendants just don’t care as much, suggests Stein. “You’re now dealing with two groups that are scared and nervous, so flight attendants say, ‘I can’t fix it, so I’ll do just enough to do my job’.”
Both sides are angry, she says. “Flight attendants don’t want to [place] 50-pound suitcases in overhead bins and [let] people think that is our job.” Flight attendants’ primary duty is to ensure the safety of passengers.
In the past, however, flight attendants had more atonomy to address passenger experience issues as they saw fit. Stein recalls an instance when she was working on a Western Airlines flight with 70 passengers on board. “Another flight [had been] cancelled, so we got 40 extra people and we didn’t have enough meals. We had more liberty back then, so I said, ‘for those who don’t want a meal, you can get two free drinks’. At the end of the flight, I had 20 meals left over.
“If I gave away that many drinks on Delta now, I’d be killed,” Stein says metaphorically, “and passengers would be furious if they didn’t get a meal.”
Gertrud Lulla recently retired from a major US airline after 23 years. Originally from Germany, where she worked as a nurse, Lulla immigrated to the United States with her husband and ended up applying for a gate agent job at her airline. “But the airline was expanding into Europe and was looking for native language speakers and more mature women as flight attendants,” Lulla recalls. “I was happy to get the job because it gave me the opportunity to see my family in Germany regularly.”
When Lulla started as a flight attendant, she said her airline served sandwiches, hot food and free alcoholic beverages. “That is all gone now. Thirty years ago, the average ticket price from New York to Europe was $800, and a barrel of oil cost $16. Now oil is $100+ a barrel, so how can you want to pay less and get the same amenities? Leisure travellers are much less realistic, while business travellers are much more sympathetic.”
She adds: “We saw big things like service cutbacks and small things like [no more] linens on passenger trays, all to save money,” says Lulla. “We changed from three-class to two-class service. After a strike, the working atmosphere wasn’t as much fun. There were those who believed in the strike and those who didn’t, so it caused disharmony between the flight attendant groups.”
If she could do it all over again, Delta’s Stein says she would still become a flight attendant. “I loved being a flight attendant because it was a fun job if you make it a fun job, but it wasn’t fun if you had a chip on your shoulder,” she says. “Flight attendants just show up, go up, go down and go home. You get to go places and have the flexibility to do other things.”
But Lulla says that, considering under current conditions, she would not become a flight attendant today. “Many passengers don’t realize there is a lot of stress, physically, mentally and emotionally. The rewards of being a flight attendant don’t counteract the negative side.”
(This piece is being published as Lufthansa grapples with strike action by its flight attendants, forcing the carrier to cancel hundreds of strikes. Nationwide action by the employee group is expected to occur on Friday, 7 September, says Lufthansa in a travel advisory. Photo above and on main page by Chalmers Butterfield.)