As stranded Spirit Airlines travelers grew desperate at San Juan Airport in Puerto Rico during a chaotic night of cancellations on Aug. 1, banging on a gate door and yelling at staff, police officers rounded up the airline’s cabin crews to hide them.
A 28-year-old flight attendant recounted being rushed to a jet bridge, behind a secure metal door, and then later to an office on the tarmac.
There, about 35 Spirit employees were told by a manager to change out of their uniforms for their safety.
“We were scared,” said the attendant, who asked not to be identified by name because of the airline’s media policy. “I’ve seen some crazy stuff, but this moved into number one.”
Air travelers have faced an unusually high number of disruptions this summer because of widespread labor shortages, bad weather and technical problems. Nearly a quarter of U.S. passenger planes between June and mid-August were delayed, while almost 4% of flights were canceled in the first half of August, according to data from Flight Aware, a flight tracking service. Spirit alone canceled nearly 2,500 flights between Aug. 1-15.
Flight attendants across the country say they are struggling to cope, facing not only these prolonged operational issues, but also an increase in aggressive passenger behavior. Nearly 4,000 unruly passenger incidents have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration in 2021, a figure described by the agency as “a rapid and significant increase.”
Most of those reports deal with attendants enforcing rules on proper masking in the cabin, with passengers who range from careless to belligerent, and at times verbally or physically abusive. Shaky, vertical footage of brawls and insults are now a familiar staple on social media.
A 28-year-old American Airlines flight attendant who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job said she had law enforcement called following verbal assaults twice since June, after six years of flying with no incidents. Both confrontations were related to mask enforcement.
“What really hurts are the people who won’t even look at you in the eye,” she said. “I don’t even feel like a human anymore.”
In interviews with more than a dozen attendants from major and regional carriers, crew members said they were getting squeezed on both sides — from passengers and the airlines. They described regularly working shifts of more than 14 hours, being assigned up to four or five flights a day, not being given sufficient time to sleep and being deterred from taking leave if fatigued or unwell.
The tense situation in the air this summer has led many attendants to say that they feel exhausted, afraid for their personal safety and, in some cases, concerned that the situation could turn dangerous.
A spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group, said its member airlines “recognize the importance of prioritizing the safety and well-being of all employees, who are the backbone of our industry,” and “comply fully with robust FAA regulations, which include stringent rest requirements and limitations on duty, as well as with all federal policies.”
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union that represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, noted that the difference in passenger response to the pandemic compared with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been “night and day.”
Twenty years ago, “every single person who came on our plane was completely on our team,” she said. But now, flight attendants have become “punching bags for the public.”
Staffing can’t keep up with demand
This spring, as vaccination rates increased, coronavirus cases dropped and restrictions melted away, demand for summer travel rebounded more quickly than many had expected. On July 1, 2.1 million air travelers passed through Transportation Security Administration airport checkpoints, even more than on the same day in 2019. Many airlines ramped up their scheduling and added new routes.
But while airlines are eager to capitalize on the demand, many appear to lack the staffing to keep up.
Bureau of Transportation Statistics data show that the number of full-time-equivalent employees at U.S. scheduled passenger airlines was nearly 14% lower in June 2021 than in March 2020. Tens of thousands of flight attendants took leave during the pandemic, the AFA union said. American Airlines said about 3,300 flight attendants have yet to return from leave.
“So many people were let go so quickly on extended leave of absence, early retirement, that they’re struggling to meet the travel demand,” said Paul Hartshorn, a flight attendant and spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents about 24,000 American Airlines attendants. “And staffing is tight, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for storms and maintenance delays.”
At Southwest Airlines, the chief operating officer, Mike Van de Ven, shared a message with staff on Aug. 20, saying that the increase in bookings has “taken a toll on our operation and put a significant strain on all of you. And for that, I am sincerely sorry.” He also said that “historical staffing models have not been effective in this pandemic environment.”
“There’s not enough people,” said Nas Lewis, a flight attendant with a major U.S. airline and founder of th|AIR|apy, a website and Facebook group that addresses flight attendants’ mental health. Lewis, who asked that the name of her airline not be published because of its media policy, said the situation generates anxiety for attendants “because we don’t know what we’re going to deal with on any given day.”
A shortage of pilots is another critical pain point for air travel, as is inadequate numbers of gate agents, baggage handlers and delivery drivers, all of which can easily throw a wrench into getting a flight out on time.
When a cabin is short staffed, the airlines depend on on-call, or “reserve,” flight attendants. This summer, airlines have been stretching their reserves to the maximum, to the point where they are running low or out of available attendants before the day has even begun.
American Airlines’ staff scheduling system for Chicago on Aug. 10, which a flight attendant for the company described as an average day this summer, showed that by 7 a.m. every reserve attendant based there was either already scheduled or unavailable.
When an airline runs out of reserves, flight attendants who are already assigned to a flight can be abruptly rescheduled to work hours longer than expected, which attendants and union representatives say occurs more frequently now and adds to their fatigue.
Long days, minimum rest
Jacqueline Petzel, a Chicago-based flight attendant with American Airlines who is currently working on reserve, said that during the first week of August, she was woken up repeatedly at 2 a.m. by American and had only two hours to race to the airport and then work a 15-hour shift.
Between some recent shifts, Petzel, 34, said she had been given only the minimum 10 hours of rest at the hotel.
During that time, she had to get dinner, shower, call family, wind down, sleep, eat breakfast and get ready for the next shift, leaving just four or five hours for actual sleep, Petzel said.
“It’s hard to keep your eyes open when you’re up that early and it’s a long flight,” Petzel said. On a recent layover in Las Vegas after a 15-hour day, she fell asleep in her uniform.
A 30-year-old flight attendant who works with United Airlines, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing her job, said she had to work a double red-eye during a four-day trip in July.
“I actually felt kind of tipsy, almost kind of drunk,” she said. “I was slow, and I know that even if something comes up the adrenaline will kick in, but I know that my decisions aren’t going to be the best.”
In response, Rachael Rivas, a spokeswoman for United said: “We have what we believe is an industry-leading, safety-focused Fatigue Risk Management Program, which includes a strong collaboration between union representatives and in-flight management.”
Flight attendants have a maximum number of hours that they can be assigned to work, although many say scheduling teams are increasingly pressuring them to accept longer and longer shifts. When an attendant exceeds the maximum hours, it is known colloquially as “going illegal.”
Attendants say it has become difficult to push back.
“They have it in the computer that you’re getting to the gate at 14 hours and 59 minutes, but it’s obvious that’s not going to happen,” said the 28-year-old attendant with American, where domestic shifts are limited to 15 hours.
“There’s this saying: fly now, grieve later,” she said. “You fly the illegal reassignment now, and you grieve it with your union later.”
Whitney Zastrow, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, said, “we’ve taken and continue to take steps to materially improve the quality of our flight attendants’ work life, including working closely with our hotel and limo vendor.”
Facing conflict and discouraged from taking leave
A video circulating online earlier this month of Frontier flight attendants duct-taping a belligerent passenger to his seat made news reports and shocked viewers. While this is an extreme incident, attendants and unions say that encountering unruly passengers, once rare, is now almost expected.
An FAA spokeswoman said that before 2021, the numbers of disturbances were fairly consistent year over year, with the agency investigating on average less than 150 incidents annually. As of Aug. 23, the FAA has launched investigations into 693 incidents in 2021.
“You would think a pandemic affecting a ton of people would cause people to maybe pause and be more compassionate to each other,” said Petzel, the American Airlines attendant. “For whatever reason, it’s made it go the complete other way.”
Flight attendants across many airlines say the situation is wearing on their mental health and physical well-being.
“I have never experienced this level of anxiety, depression in my entire life,” said the 28-year-old flight attendant who works for American. “We’re really breaking down.”
“We’re used to getting B.S. from the company, from the passengers, we’re used to weather — but not all at the same time for an extended period of time. It’s every single day, it’s every single trip,” she said.
Many attendants say they fear retribution for taking leave, especially now.
Some airlines have a point-based attendance policy, whereby if a flight attendant has an unplanned absence when scheduled to work (say, because they call in sick), they accrue a point. Too many points can trigger an investigation or even termination.
JetBlue warned crew members that they would incur double attendance points if they took an unplanned absence over a weekend between July 23 through Labor Day weekend.
One JetBlue flight attendant, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job, said that last month he worked more than 17 hours on a shift and had been given only the legal minimum amount of rest, eight hours, between some flights.
He has called in sick a number of times but worries that he may accrue too many attendance points and face termination.
“When you try to talk to people about it, they say, ‘This is what you signed up for,’” he said, referring to a conversation he had with his manager.
“Our attendance policy is similar to most airlines, and on peak periods (like holidays) it’s especially important that crew members show up for assigned trips so that customers can get where they plan on going,” said Derek Dombrowski, a JetBlue spokesman. JetBlue is also offering financial incentives to encourage crews to take shifts.
Normally, Southwest Airlines is contractually obliged to let attendants call in sick without requiring a physician’s note. But the company can invoke an “emergency sick-call procedure,” requiring staff to verify their illness with a company doctor. Southwest has invoked this policy three times this summer.
“It should not be used as a usual or normal way of controlling the operation,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants. The last time this procedure was used was in 2017.
“While never a desired option, Southwest may, when operationally necessary, enact emergency sick call procedures to protect the airline’s schedule and support working flight attendants,” said Brian Parrish, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines. “Southwest Airlines supports employees’ physical, emotional and mental health with a variety of programs and offerings — including free employee assistance services that are available 24/7.”
The union and attendants said they felt that these doctors could be dismissive of symptoms. Staff also may not feel comfortable seeing the airline’s doctor, especially if dealing with mental health concerns.
“Our mental health has never been more disrupted than now, obviously since 9/11,” said a 30-year-old flight attendant for Southwest, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job. “You can’t even call out sick if you’re having major anxiety or depression episodes. It doesn’t matter.”
Lewis, of th|AIR|apy, said in May she was shoved by a hostile passenger who was upset about an overbooked flight. She did not report the incident, she said, because she was too exhausted.
“As flight attendants, we are at our wits’ end,” she said.