Only last weekend, I crept in traffic across the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River and had plenty of time to gaze down at the tip of Manhattan. There the finished exterior of the Freedom Tower soared skyward with its long antenna pointing to the heavens. It is a symbol of a country that is rebuilding itself from the horrible events a dozen years ago.

I thought about the ceremony that will be coming up to commemorate 9/11. When this building is finally finished and populated, the ceremony will mean even more, but this week it will be added to other ceremonies, new memorials 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. Airline flight attendants are the unsung heroes and frontline foot soldiers in this country’s “war on terrorism.”

I’ve said so on every anniversary of the September attacks, and I’ll say it again this year. Though many flight attendants may not be happy with some of my stances regarding consumer rights, TSA inspections and against major airline mergers, their service still resonates with me.

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.

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.

TSA has identified new risks and has changed security procedures to take new intelligence into account. Flight attendants get regular briefings about the latest plots so that they can be alert.

We passengers grumble about the inconvenience of security. 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. And, in the latest twist, there is talk about constructing double barriers between the cockpits and the rest of the plane. 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.

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

Are our memories so short? Let’s get our priorities straight.

Baggage screeners earn between $25,000 and $38,000 a year. TSA supervisors earn $44,400 to $68,800 a year. Federal air marshals make between $36,000 and $84,000 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 half-dozen years many flight attendants have had their retirement programs and pensions stripped from them by their struggling airlines.

While the plane is in the air, flight attendants are our first 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: By Tomas Pihl, Flickr Creative Commons