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.