Flight attendants — unsung heroes 8 years later

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Over the eight years since 9/11, there have been many ceremonies, new memorials, congressional plaudits and remembrances for those who died in that day’s tragic events.

Police officers, firefighters and other first responders gather every year with politicians on stages across America. Yet few remember that the first casualties of the terrorist attacks were flight attendants. Sadly, airline crewmembers are almost never included in the tributes.

That’s a shame.

I’ve said so on every anniversary of the September attacks, and I’ll say it again this year.

Airline flight attendants are the unsung heroes and frontline foot soldiers in this country’s “war on terrorism.” Though experts cannot predict when there will be another terrorist attack, they can all agree that one will come. New plans are certainly being tested to attack our transportation systems.

The stress on our airline systems has increased and will only get worse. And yet flight attendants continue to report to work every day, ready to do what they can to keep us safe. Unfortunately, the traveling public takes them for granted.

Every time a plane takes off, every time a traveler stands up and walks toward the cockpit, and every time the captain exits the flight deck to use the facilities, flight attendants go on alert.

Eight years ago, immediately after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the media was filled with stories about “real heroes” — rescuers, police and firefighters who risked their lives to save workers in those buildings. The firefighters, EMTs and police deserve every accolade they receive. However, flight attendants should be praised as well.

Flight attendants face potential danger every time they go to work. Where once their main purpose was to see to in-flight comforts and provide knowledgeable assistance in case of an emergency landing, their new job requirements are much more nerve-racking. Worse, their work is almost always taken for granted.

What once was an airborne world of giddy tourists and grumpy businessmen is now could be a war zone without notice. Trouble — perhaps deadly trouble — could break out in the cabin at any time. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But perhaps someday.

New terrorist dangers are unknown. So unknown, in fact, that the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other government organizations still cannot predict where, when or how an attack will take place.

While passengers grumble about the inconvenience of waiting in long security lines, taking off our shoes, putting liquids in checked baggage, being stripped naked by by backscatter scanning machines, and having our luggage and bodies probed, most of us have decided to fly anyway, at least to places that are important to us. We have that choice. Flight attendants don’t. If they want to continue being paid, they have to go to work.

The same is true of pilots, of course. But pilots are now barricaded inside their cockpits. Some have been given stun guns and others have been trained to carry firearms. But what are flight attendants getting?

Not much. Before captains lock themselves in the cockpit, they now basically tell the flight attendants that they will have to fend for themselves. They don’t have much choice — most everyone agrees that the cockpit door must stay locked.

Yes, some airlines now train flight attendants in the basics of self-defense: skills like coordinating with other flight attendants, maintaining distance, assuming a protective body position, and dealing with unruly passengers. Some airlines even offer advanced programs — on a voluntary basis — but the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) still, eight years later, hasn’t designed a system for evaluating this training and, worse, flight attendants still have a hard time getting time off to attend.

As for public recognition, there’s been almost nothing. Instead, what flight attendants have seen since I first wrote this story eight years ago is a continuing series of layoffs, downsizings and reductions in pay.

Are our memories so short?

Flight attendants were the most consistent source of information on 9/11 when, at the risk of their lives, they phoned airline operations personnel to let them know about the hijackings; they even provided seat numbers and descriptions of the hijackers. Flight attendants were most certainly involved with the in-cabin attack on the terrorists aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania instead of into a building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Later, in one of the few instances of terrorism thwarted in the act, a diminutive flight attendant physically prevented a fanatic from lighting a fuse to a shoe-bomb that would have downed American Airlines Flight 63 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

So, let’s get our priorities straight.

Baggage screeners earn between $25,000 and $38,000 a year. TSA supervisors earn $45,000 to $70,000 a year. Federal air marshals make between $36,000 and $85,000 a year. These workers receive all the standard government perks of medical care, vacations and insurance. Meanwhile, flight attendants, the airlines’ real frontline troops, receive starting salaries of $18,000 a year, or less, and don’t have a prayer of seeing $30,000 for at least three years. Vacation time in those years is meager, while time “on reserve” (waiting around in case another flight attendant is sick or gets stuck in traffic) seems to be endless.

To add insult to paltry pay, over the past three years many flight attendants have had their retirement programs and pensions stripped from them by their airlines as they pay executives millions of dollars in bonuses.

For years, we have heard the flight attendant mantra, “We are here for your safety.” Now those words are truer than ever. And safety, today, means far more than helping with oxygen masks, securing the overhead compartments, checking seat belts and opening emergency doors.

Let’s face it: Federal air marshals are not on most flights. While the plane is in the air, flight attendants are our final line of defense. They may be serving peanuts, pretzels and drinks, but they are constantly on watch until touchdown at the final destination.

Today’s flight attendants face what amounts to nonstop battle stress from an unidentified, furtive and unpredictable enemy.

I, for one, thank them for their service. All of us who fly should thank them as well.

Photo: Mujitra/Flickr/Commons

  • melissa

    Thank you for your kind words and your recognition.
    I have been flying for nine years and appreciation for our service is underwhelming to say the least.
    I love what I do and that is why I do it despite the fact that I’ll never get rich doing it or that I have to deal with rude, selfish, or disgruntled passengers directing their tirades at me.
    It is kind words and appreciation like this that keep me putting on my uniform and a smile every day.

    Melissa – continental airlines

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  • Connie Z. S.

    Thank you for the recognition. Being a flight attendant, I am so thankful every time I have a safe and uneventful flight and I do mean at the end of EVERY flight. To this day, you will still find passengers who will become irate if we ask them to not congregate near the lavatory or cockpit. I guess they have a short memory. I, for one, will never forget and pray that the horrible event of 9/11 will NEVER be repeated.

  • M Applegate

    Bravo, Mr, Leocha, Bravo. I’m a FA with Southwest Airlines. I appreciate you trying to get us the attention and respect we need. We’re here for the safety of everyone onboard the aircraft.

  • Mary Koester

    All I can say is THANK YOU.

  • Debi Hanses

    Thank you!!!

  • http://oussamastake.blogspot.com/ Oussama

    Very well written, I totally agree with CHARLIE LEOCHA that Cabin Crew/Flight Attendants are the unsung heroes of the Airline and the most taken for granted. They are the last line of defense against terrorism and the passengers safety and security safeguards. They are the soul of any airline, http://oussamastake.blogspot.com/2009/08/angels-in-sky.html.

  • Gail Pindzia

    Thank You. Isn’t it interesting that when a police officer gets injured or killed at their job, with which one would have some assumption of danger. They and the public are incredibly disgusted. Rightly so. Being a Flight Attendant, being part of a flight crew, being the people on the front lines, left to our own devices, isn’t it interesting how the “public” treats us. “Interesting”.

  • Ruth H. Etherton

    This was sent to me by my granddaughter who is a Flight attendant. Prior to this email I had not thought about giving them recognition and acknowledgment of the dangers they face. This honor should be shown to the Flight Attendant as much as is given to fire fighters, police officers and others that are recognized as heros(which they all are). The Flight Attendants are often put in “Harms Way”. Notice their pay scale and benefits. God Bless each one of the Flight Attendants. This was an “Eye Opener” for me. Thanks Suzanne.

  • http://Bettyannong.org Edward J Herrera

    I am the brother-in-law of BettyOng, one of the heroes of AA flt.11, which was flown into the World Trade Center on 09-11-2001. Betty gave vital information, calmly and professionally. Wall Street Journal publish an article saying that my sister-in-law was hysterical, what a lie, yet they would not apologize.
    We started the Betty Ong Foundation to honor Betty and flight attendants for all that they do. We are in the process of doing an annual “Flight Attendants Ball” to give recognition to our unsung heroes, flight attendants.
    The proceeds to go to battle childhood obesity. go to BettyOngFoundation.org
    for more information.

  • Leslie

    Thank you for recognizing what flight attendants do and are prepared to do. It is nice to be acknowledged.

  • J.D.

    Thanks Charlie, right on!!

  • jennifer

    AMEN & THANK YOU!!!!!!!

  • shawn ziegler

    as someone who has allways wanted to be a f/a [way to old now ]and i love to read bookks written by f/a,s ,and who has known several f/a,s i have allways given every f/a on every flight my utmost respect,and still cannot believe how most people treat the wonderfull people who serve and protect us every day on thousnds of flights ,even in first class,it shocks me how people treat the f/a,s as there slaves intead of giviving them the respect they deserve. of course if the airlines they worked for gave them some more of the above that might help!!! so i want to persononly thank every hard working f/a out there a heartfelt thank you for all the hard work you do!!!

  • rob lawson

    as a cabin crew member in the uk 4 a charter airline i wud like to say how right u are. we r treated with disrespect and with no regard 4 our safety or the passengers around these selfish, ungrateful ppl. yes i love my job, the company i work for but after only 5 1/2 yrs i getting fed up of the way we r treated by these ppl tat think tat they can tug on our waistcoats and click there fingers at us as tho we r slaves. at the end of the day, we r there to save their arses not kiss them

  • deborah calimano

    I agree. It is time to get that fact out to the world. Charlie, google my name. I did just that here in West Orange NJ. There is a new flight crew memorial at a place called Eagle Rock Reservation. My county Executive agreed that we are the unsung heros. Check it out. I think you, and every reading this, will like it. I had congressmen, and senators, and a possible new governor here in NJ, Chris Christie, all were there. It was a great day. Crews, DON’T TAKE ANY CRAP FROM PEOPLE!!!!!! We Rock!!!! Fly Safe, kick ass if you have to, take names later.LOL

  • Curt

    I have been an F/A for going on 2years, and have experienced first hand the low pay, the furlough(twice in my first year) and the rudeness of passengers, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because the position is awsome, and for every rude pass. There are several that are not and truly appreciate us being there, and that keeps me coming back. This is a fantastic article and it should be shared with F/A training classes all over to show how important thier new career is.

  • TREVOR BRIDLE

    Hello,I still think the planes that struck the towers, is in doubt if they were the actual flights mentioned,or remote controlled planes,? as with the pentagon there was no sign that it was an air craft, as the whole was too small.and no sign of aircraft parts,pictures taken just after the crash. just as the pictures showed, of a computer, and a book,where shown undamaged.So no fire,perhaps these air line staff have never mentioned? where there any crew killed? I hope not.Its all down with the Bush evil leadership?,I so I hope the can sleep at night.

  • Rob Martin

    As a retired fa from TWA/AA, the words I can only say are THANK YOU! FA’s today get the short end of the stick as flying changed in the last fifteen years.

  • Margot Birke

    Amen. I have been saying the same thing since 9/11. I am a retired UAL flight attendant and my husband is a retired pilot. He was working that day on his way from DC to LAX. I have always felt that flight attendants have been undervalued by the companies they work for and by the traveling public. I think it is because on the whole they perform their jobs seamlessly and professionally. I don’t think that they are even sufficiently respected by the pilots they also serve and protect onboard the aircraft. It is a relief to see in print what I have been espousing for so many years.

  • Jeff Brown

    I wholeheartedly agree with Charles. No one could have said it Better. Here is my observation of the much due credit that Flight Attendants very much deserve, but have not received hardly any recognition they deserve, or even mentioned among all the other rescuers in the news media. I myself have never worked in the air industry much less contemplated being aboard a plane as an everyday duty and regular job. I as a regular consumer/passenger though, have always had the chilled feeling of what the flight attendants would be faced with, and being out-numbered in a tight enclosed cabin with very little room to walk let alone outside and on the ground (where firefighters and police officers are at least able to have the room to manuever and “peace of mind” of being able to retreat from the scene whether dealing with violent criminals or disgruntled citizens) if something broke out. Even before 9/11 of the many years I have flown, have found it disturbing and frightening with how they could resolve to a peaceful end a sudden outburst in a crowded cabin of a plane(should it ever happen) when there are no doors to exit at 35,000 feet in the air. I for one, fly at best once every two or three years and during each of those take-offs, it crosses my mind all the miscalculated possibilites that could occur whether mechanical error or unknown enemy, same if not worse than (the kinds that police officers face). So the probability of flight attendants life in risk is exponentially incomprehensible. In short, Flight Attendant who we all take for granted and who are not paid consistent with the high responsibility they bear, must be prepared for an imminent ever present danger. And if a life-threatning event does occur, Flight Attendants will be on their own to deal with it. Bravery and Heroism is what they prove, live and breath everyday when they are airborne and have to be prepared for any eventuality on a normal duty day. However, on the morning of 9/11, who was our FIRST-LINE OF DEFENSE in the wake of the attacks on our country??- Our Flight Attendants, of course!! And we should not Forget that. And accordingly, they were and still are the SOLDIERS to whom we should forever HONOR, APPRECIATE, and give them the Rewards(in the form of higher salaries consistent with the danger and high responsibilites they carry) they Deserve. One more note, we have all seen movies portraying all the dramatic events anything from realistic to extremes unimaginable and role models in those movies some of us to whom we religiously look to as our idols because of rescuing and saving a life in a make-believe film. But we never could have imagined the reality after 9/11 that our planes the places where our flight attendants place of work would be used as weapons against them, and so our Flight Attendants were called first to be the Nation’s First Line Of Defense on that dark and horrifying day. Consequently, Thirty-three crew members Flight Attendants, including the Pilots lost their lives that morning. Our Flight Attendants are without doubt forever to whom we should owe our debts for their service and should Thank them everytime we board the plane. For myself, I don’t have a vested interest in the flight industry because my occupation is a clerk in an administrative office. I say this to just want to emphasize the absolute fact of truism in my observations for Flight Attendants and the long overdue credit they deserve. Thank You.

  • Jeff

    As highly professional flight attendants, Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney were on their own to defend, and went above and beyond the scope of their duties to save the crew and passengers. With Betty and Amy finding themselves in the middle of the disastrous events on board the aircraft and both their lives in risk, Betty remarkably carried out detailed reports, while taking relayed information from Amy’s accounts of the events. This was occurring in closed surroundings dispensed with mace, lacked oxygen, where chaos was being stirred up by the five highjackers on A.A. Flight 11. Clearly there were many passengers and crewmembers harmed and several lives lost just a short distance away from where they were while on the air-phones with federal authorities, with the possibility they could have been next. Amid the commotion, with little air to breath or room to maneuver, Betty and Amy calmly and professionally reported and rendered aid to passengers in precarious conditions. Nevertheless, they remained smart and calm all the way through to the end, aware of their fate, but never gave up. At the cost of their own lives, their reports on the highjacking proved invaluable to the authorities that led to better preventive measures to avoid another tragedy as on 9/11 for many years to come.

    P.S. Those who wish to pay tribute and appreciate Betty and Amy can also find their names inscribed on the 9/11memorial in Grapevine, Texas, where a newly built and beautiful statue is dedicated to the crewmembers on the four flights that were lost. Thanks to all Flight Attendants, for keeping all of us safe when traveling. Lets face it, while having the peace of mind to fall back and retreat is an option for law enforcement at ground level if a crisis escalates; is never an option for flight attendants, however insurmountable the crisis may be. The fact is until the plane reaches its destination, the responsibility and burden falls exclusively to flight attendants for the traveling public to depend on to resolve any conflict or provide medical aid. The duties involved for Flight Attendants makes the risks of their work incalculable. They now effectively are put in the role as the police, doctor, nurse, psychiatrist, bomb squad, and referee.

  • Taylor

    thanks!

  • Larry Evans

    Thank you Mr. Leocha for your article. As a 25 year F/A with American Airlines I was quite touched by your article and appreciate you bringing to light the responsibility we have as F/A’s in the work place. Kudos to you!!

  • http://thewormgirlnews.blogspot.com Rachel Monaco

    Thank you so much for recognizing the valuable role that flight attendants played on 9/11. As a 19 year AA flight attendant I appreciate your recognition of the hard job that we have protecting the cockpit and the cabin. I say every day I go to work I think of 9/11 and that’s not an exaggeration. We are the front line of defense and take seriously our role in preventing another terrorist attack.

  • http://ConsumerTraveler Jose Luis Caldas Jr

    As a Retred American Airlines in flight crew member for 35 yrs i was amazed of the lack of recognition Flight attendants received by the Goverment of the World and the Traveling Public. after the 9/11 declaration of war and lost of so many lives.Memorials where held for every heroe involved in such event except the Flight attendants in those downed flights.Since then every time a crew member(F/A) boards an aircraft is left to wonder if their flight will make it safe to its final destination.Cockpit is locked behind a secure door and crew members are to be the defenders of you, the traveling public.As many are concerned of their mineral and color awards upgrades and their selfish ways..Flight Attendants are costantly monitoring without you realizing that all is well in the cabin.Many think that just because you dont see them constantly in the cabin they are not aware of your well being…get over it!! yes they are,and more than what you realized..They were the first to be killed defending you, they were the first in giving the gov. vital information of the highjackers in a professional and calm way,as they are trained to do.Cabin locked down in such event was developed and place in the books because crew members created it to defend you as an aircraft was almost blown out of the sky over the Atlantic.It was a female F/A who stopped this assault.So,while the traveling public disrespect this professionals,they are making sure that you are able to kiss your wife,child and walk in one piece after you reach your destination all over the world 24 hours a day.Who is to blame….first each management aircarrier from top mangement to you,but the worst of all is the goverment where each carriier is from.Management just cares about stealing big bonuses while cut everything else from F/A,you because take for granted this professionals that can save your life one day in more way than just terrorist attack and last the Goverment for allowing aircarriers to treat this unsungheroes like this….. To you Sir I thank you for bringing to the light this matter…..No matter if you are gold,platinum.silver ,zaphire,emerald or any other silly mineral or color when a terrorist attack takes place you will have only one group of ladies and gentleman fighting for you..Flight- attendants.Show respect and appreciate what they do for you.

  • Frank

    Jose, the Association of Flight Attendants held a “memorial” in Washington Park in New York City on September 11, 2002. It was a sea of blue uniforms, a sea of tears as bagpipes played, white doves released into the air and someone walked onto a stage area holding a picture of a FLIGHT ATTENDANT killed that day. I’ll NEVER FORGET……………I was there (holding a large American Flag).

  • Robin

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!

  • Louis

    Thank you. I have been a flight attendant for 22 years. I have seen many changes to our profession. And yes, people forget that it was a flight attendant that was the first to die on 9/11. And that we continue to monitor our aircraft for terrorist.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha unknown flight attendant

    Thank you so much for reminding everyone of the real reason that flight attendants are on board airplanes. Safety and security. We are now the airlines’ last line of defense against terrorism. We are expected to report to work as usual and perform all of the same job duties that we performed prior to 9/11. But then the world changed. The job that I have now had for over 27 years (with several different airlines) changed with it. We know, and are reminded each time we go to work, of the very real possibility of another terrorist attack. It is always uppermost in our thoughts. Whatever else may be happening on a flight, every flight attendant knows that if a terrorist attack should occur, we are on our own. The pilots can’t help us. That door will stay locked even though there is a real possibility that we would likely have to sacrifice our lives to keep it locked.
    The vast majority of us are still smiling, friendly, and enjoying our jobs in spite of huge paycuts and layoffs. The cuts in onboard service that management has chosen to make often make our passengers irate and our jobs more difficult. We are constantly apologizing for things that we had nothing to do with. That’s actually nothing new; just part of the job. To be honest, I’d honestly prefer to serve free food. I used to have much fewer problems when we did.
    It never ceases to amaze me though when I’m reminded of what short memories so many people have. Not only are the flight attendants the unsung heroes of 9/11 and in emergencies such as the US Airways crash in the Hudson River, but we are faced daily with any number of other safety-related situations. Medical emergencies are probably the most obvious. Through our initial 7-week unpaid training (and our unpaid annual recurrent training), we have learned CPR, the use of a defibrillator, first aid, and basic medical procedures. Flight attendants are directly responsible for saving the lives of numerous passengers.
    Customers tend not to pay much attention to the safety demo. On the few cases when we have had to repeat that exact same demo inflight due to the possibility of an emergency landing, all eyes are suddenly on us watching or every move, listening to our every word, and looking to us for guidance because they know that we are the ones who will save their lives.
    I recently had a passenger literally screaming at me because we had run out of pasta! A joke among flight attendants is, “Sir, I said we ran out of pasta, not fuel!”. Let’s put it in perspective, shall we? Try to remember too that flight attendants are not the one who decided how many of each meal would be put on each flight (on those flights where there is still actually a hot meal). By all means, make your feelings known to us (the flight attendants). We will bend over backwards to give you whatever is available. Feel free to talk to us about the best way to get your message heard. Ask for names and addresses of customer service, the CEO, etc. Just keep in mind that screaming and making a scene will not help, and these days will likely get you arrested. You’ve just become a safety threat. I don’t mean the obvious threat of being unruly or violating federal laws… what went through my mind first was, “What if this is a diversion to take my attention away from what’s happening in the rest of the cabin”? It always comes back to the treat of terrorism now.
    Everything you said in your article is true. We have suffered paycuts and layoffs. Our executives have given themselves hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses in spite of record losses. Many of us are now in bankruptcy, foreclosure, or unemployed. It’s not a fair world, and it’s not a fair industry. But it’s the career that I chose, and a job I still perform with pride. I may not be happy with the way I’m treated by my company, I may be extremely stressed by the constant threat of extreme violence every time I go to work, but I have a job. Usually a fun and interesting job. THere’s really no other job in the world quite like it. But it would be nice if the public would stop forgetting why we’re really there and maybe even show us the same respect that they would show to anyone who was touched and hurt so very deeply by 9/11. It would be wonderful if our own management would stop lining their own pockets and start paying us a living wage. The amount that I’m paid to cover meals and expenses for each 24 hour period does not even come close to paying for one meal. My salary is so much less today than it was prior to 9/11 that I can no longer afford a place to live. I’m back at mom’s house.
    Just a quick comment to those who commented above me… yes, a smile will almost always get you a smile in return. 70 hours per month is a low figure. More realistically, it’s between 85 and 100 hours. But those are FLIGHT hours. From the time the plane starts moving at departure until it stops moving at arrival. The hours of work setting up for a flight, between flights, trying to sleep on a layover for the next day’s flights, getting to the airport extra early, going through US Customs up to 3 or 4 times per day, and going through the same security that all passengers go through 3-4 times per day as well are all unpaid. I can’t think of any other work group that works for free for hours at a time on each shift.
    And finally, a huge thank you to all of you who commented above me and to those who DO remember why we’re there. Thank you for that smile. Thank you for making my day at work less stressful, and for putting that smile on my face. It’s because of people like you that I love my job, and in spite of everything, I choose to keep doing it.

  • http://[email protected] Casey Wallace

    Hooray for the article! Nice job and so true.