Lale Arikoglu: First up is our conversation with Sara, who leads a union that represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines. She recently testified before the House of Representatives, speaking about the rise in unruly passengers on flights. Meredith, take it away.
MC: The last time we spoke in July 2020, there was no federal mask mandate for planes, layoffs were imminent, travel was limited—and a lot has obviously changed since then, both good and bad. What does travel look like right now from the perspective of a flight attendant?
Sara Nelson: We made it through with federal relief. Ultimately it took a lot of work to keep our jobs in place, but we’re no longer necessarily worried about losing our jobs unless this continues on and we hit another downward turn. Now it’s about survival, ending the pandemic, and then trying to recover. Every day when flight attendants are going to work, it is very difficult because as has been widely reported, our flights have had a lot of conflict on them. Not every flight, but very often. We took a survey of our members and in 2021, 85 percent of our members said that they had experienced at least one incident of an unruly passenger on their flight and nearly 70 percent said that they had experienced at least five incidents.
To put that into perspective, this is something that we’re trained for. We’re trained in deescalation tactics. Flight attendants are very adept at doing that and actually keeping these incidents very low, normally, throughout the history of aviation. It would be a really bad day when something were to rise to the level of making the evening news—or even a report to the FAA—that something seriously wrong had happened. Now, it’s more like every single day. When flight attendants are putting on their uniforms, they’re preparing in their minds that this could be the day that they get punched in the face or that they have to face some really horrible conflict on board.
MC: What is driving that conflict and what are those tactics that flight attendants try before it gets to the point where they’re having to speak to the pilot, they’re calling airport police, filing those FAA reports?
SN: There’s a lot of things. Fundamentally there has been a total disinformation campaign about this pandemic and people have been led to believe they were in conflict with each other. There is just an erosion of public trust because of the conflict of information and conflicting information from leaders all around the country. That is fundamentally the biggest problem here.
But there’s other contributing factors, too. There’s the fact that there was essentially no one traveling for 18 months, so almost everyone who has been coming to the airport in 2021 is like a first time flyer. In the past we always had about 30 percent of people who were regular travelers, who would essentially show everyone else what the program was. That’s very helpful for flight attendants because if you think about it, we’re on the front lines answering question and because so much has become automated, in a lot of cases, we are the first company representative that passengers are actually interfacing with. So when we have more questions to answer during the boarding process—which is our busiest time anyway—we’ve just got a lot more going on. We have deescalation tactics and the first and most important priority in deescalating is getting to the conflict as soon as possible because the sooner you can get there and start the deescalation process, the more likely you’re going to be successful. Because we are so highly tasked [right now], we are at minimum staffing, our planes are full—and full of people who just don’t know the program, don’t know what to expect—it’s much harder to get to these incidents and deal with them before they take off. I do use that in both meanings because we also know that in aviation safety, the most important thing to do is to keep problems on the ground. The survey with our members also told us that they saw the first signs of potential conflict 23 percent of the time in the gate area, over 50 percent of the time during the boarding process. So in an ideal world, you’d be able to suss that out more and determine whether that is going to continue to escalate or not. Deescalate it right there, or take that person off and leave them behind, which would cut down on at least half of those incidents we’re seeing. So these are all of the things that are contributing. But I’ll tell you, from Chelsea Handler to President Biden himself, we have had incredible backing from all kinds of people and a lot of reporting on this issue and we are starting to see the results. What we’re starting to see is the vast majority of people, who just want to have a safe, uneventful flight, which is almost everyone, are starting to say, thank you, recognize us, speak out, help us. It’s making a difference in the experience on board.