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Flight attendants brace for a long, hot summer of disruptive passengers

After six years of flying, U.S.-based flight attendant Allyah McIntyre was used to dealing with difficult passengers.

During the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, dealing with the few passengers who chose to fly was actually a pleasant experience. But as more people began to book airline tickets again, chaos reigned, she said.

“The passengers got more and more unruly. There’s no such thing as travel etiquette,” McIntyre, who shares travel tips on TikTok, told MarketWatch. “I mean, it’s a free-for-all when you travel these days.”

Earlier this week, an American Airlines passenger pleaded guilty to assault after attacking two flight attendants on a flight from Barbados to Miami. The passenger was also described in a court complaint as “belligerent and non-compliant.” He was arrested when the plane landed in Miami on March 8.

In April, Alaska Airlines

said a flight from San Francisco to Chicago O’Hare was diverted to Kansas City due to a disruptive guest on board who allegedly made “threatening comments against the crew.” A flight attendant and two passengers allegedly had to restrain her with zip ties. She was charged with one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.

‘The issues are endless.’

— U.S.-based flight attendant Allyah McIntyre

There are other incidents — from the unpleasant to the downright unfathomable — that don’t end up with arrests, or even getting reported by the media. McIntyre said people have been asking for nail clippers on board and even vaping on the plane. “The issues are endless,” McIntyre said. “People are just so irritable while traveling — the energy, it’s different.”

Post-pandemic travel has surged as people take advantage of a freedom that was temporarily lost during lockdowns and other measures imposed on them to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

And the upcoming summer travel season looks to be exceptionally robust. European airlines in early May said they were already seeing a surge in bookings for the summer. Travel-booking site Expedia
which recently reported a big jump in quarterly revenue, also saw bookings soar for the summer.

With roughly 2 million people a day flowing through airport checkpoints helmed by the Transportation Security Administration, airport staff and airline crews have their hands full.

While the number of incidents of unruly passengers as reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has fallen from a peak of 5,973 in 2021, it’s still higher than what we saw before the pandemic. There were 2,455 such incidents in 2022. So far this year, airlines have already logged 670 incidents with the FAA.

Allyah McIntyre, a U.S.-based flight attendant.

Photo credit: Allyah McIntyre

Flight staff have developed methods of dealing with difficult passengers.

Christopher Clarke, who handles communications for the United Airlines

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and is based in Chicago, has been a flight attendant for 26 years.

Clarke said he does his best to channel calm energy on the airplane. “If somebody’s upset, I know it’s generally not at me,” he told MarketWatch. “A lot of times, if you go down on one knee and you take the time to listen, that generally defuses situations.”

Flight attendants can limit the passenger’s access to alcoholic beverages if they believe the passenger is drunk.

Alcohol consumption can also cause bad behavior. If a passenger is drunk before they are on the plane, they could be denied boarding, per federal aviation rules. On board, flight attendants can limit the passenger’s access to alcoholic beverages if they believe the passenger is drunk.

If the situation escalates and the passenger becomes disruptive, the flight attendant has the discretion to inform the pilots and the flight deck, who may end up diverting the plane.

Consider this instance in late April, when a United flight en route from Newark, N.J. to Israel turned around because a passenger was being disorderly. The passenger wanted to use the bathroom, and allegedly sat in a seat assigned to crew members only. A flight attendant and the man reportedly got into a shouting match and eventually the plane was turned around.

United did not return a request for comment.

Tough job in the sky as a flight attendant

For all the nastiness they deal with, flight attendants were paid a median salary of $62,000 in 2021, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A high-school degree or the equivalent is typically required for a job as a flight attendant; they receive on-the-job training and must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the BLS.The FAA has strict requirements governing flight-attendant rest periods.

Among those rules: for a duty period of over 14 hours, they must have a rest period of 9 consecutive hours. Duty periods that last over 18 hours require a 12-hour rest period. The FAA also requires a certain number of flight attendants per flight, depending on the number of passengers, so they can get sufficient rest periods., a jobs-listing website, said that flight attendants work on average between 12- to 14-hour days, and log around 65 to 85 flight hours each month, which doesn’t include overtime. “A flight attendant’s official duty time begins when the plane pushes from the gate until it arrives at its destination,” the site adds. “Preflight, boarding, post-flight, delays and layovers are not official duty time so attendants can use layover time as they wish.”

Airlines are scrambling to fill roles, with United announcing in early May that it was hiring over 4,000 flight attendants.

They also don’t always have set schedules, as their day-to-day depends on the route they’re flying. McIntyre, for instance, was about to embark on a six-day journey. Routes also depend on how senior the attendant is, the website said, as well as where they live, and what destinations they prefer. In other words, if some attendants — such as parents of young children — prefer short trips, they can work with the airline to take shorter routes, and more days off. Airlines pay for all their meals and accommodations where it is necessary.

Danielle Schmitz, a San Francisco Bay Area-based flight attendant, has been on the job for 16 years. She has an 8-year-old son and relied a lot on her former mother-in-law for child care when he was younger.

“It was hard, but I did it somehow,” she said, adding that being a flight attendant is not ideal for parents who want to be at work while their child is at school and home around the same time that their child is at home.

Airlines are scrambling to fill roles, with United announcing in early May that it was hiring over 4,000 flight attendants.

Schmitz went on disability a couple of months ago because she hurt her back on the job. Before that, however, she said passenger “anger had subsided a little bit,” especially as masks became optional. But she agrees with other flight attendants’ assessment of working conditions nowadays: staffing levels, she said, have not kept up with increased demand.

“Definitely, there are gaps in the post-COVID airline world,” she said.

Airlines are scrambling to fill roles, with United announcing in early May that it was hiring over 4,000 flight attendants.

The summer surge, however, is expected to be messier than ever. Clarke said that part of the problem is the lack of staffing for specific roles.

He expects the summer to be the busiest time of the year, as usual, and hopes airlines are sufficiently staffed to deal with growing travel demand. As flights have resumed during the pandemic, airlines have brought back flight attendants. But in some cases, there have not been enough schedulers, which became an issue last summer.

Schedulers make sure flights are properly staffed. Last year, a lack of schedulers meant that some flight attendants were waiting for hours on hold to get their new assignments, leading to flight delays and cancellations. Some flight attendants staged a day of protest to express their frustration.

Airlines are preparing for a busy summer

Airlines for America, or A4A, is an industry group whose members are Alaska Airlines
American Airlines
Delta Air Lines
Hawaiian Airlines
JetBlue Airways
Southwest Airlines

and United Airlines. 

Hannah Walden, a spokeswoman for A4A, said airlines “recognize the importance of securing a pipeline of new employees — including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and others — to accommodate growing demand for air travel across the country and around the globe.”

She said airlines are creating new pilot training and stepping up recruiting, as well as trimmed flight schedules and adjusted staffing. Walden said U.S. airlines employed more than 482,000 workers as of February, the highest level in 20 years.

Back on the job, McIntyre said she compartmentalizes incidents that happen on the aircraft, writing it off as part of her duties. “You just kind of have to roll with the punches, maybe even laugh at it if you can,” she said, “because otherwise, it will stress you out.” 

She said she was ready — and prepared — for the surge in travel. “I’m expecting oversold flights, more unruly passengers — I’m ready for it,” McIntyre said.

Walden said airlines continue to work with the FAA, TSA and other agencies to prevent and respond to passenger incidents.

And despite the negative incidents on board, some flight attendants still love their career.

“This can be one of the greatest jobs in the world,” Clarke said. “The job has changed, but it’s definitely worth it. It gives a lot of flexibility. If you like people, you get to see a lot of them. You get to travel and see the world.”

This story originally appeared on Marketwatch

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