They Did What? Flight Attendants Tell Nightmare Tales from the Pandemic

Flight attendants share the dangers of their jobs post-pandemic, from aggressive passengers refusing to wear masks to fears of contracting the deadly virus.
By: | March 23, 2021

When the passenger in first class began sucking on a lollipop, Eleanor knew it would be a long flight.

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A flight attendant with a major airline, Eleanor has seen plenty of passengers get creative to skirt mask-wearing regulations — but this was next-level.

“Passengers are permitted to take quick sips or bites, then put their masks back on in between,” said Eleanor, whose real name is withheld because she’s not permitted to speak publicly. “The idea is to limit exposure with masks off, but I guess he didn’t care about the rules or the safety of the other passengers — including me.”

Eleanor and her crew members reminded him of mask rules, but he didn’t comply. They were left with a choice — escalate the situation by threatening an emergency landing, or wait it out. They chose to wait.

“Passengers are mirroring us. If we get worked up and stressed out, they’re going to give it right back to us,” she said. “That’s really dangerous at 35,000 feet.”

Flight attendants like Eleanor say passengers regularly refuse mask-wearing mandates and become unruly in the process. It adds new safety concerns and anxiety to an already hectic profession. Meanwhile, the stress of potentially catching COVID-19 looms large. Eleanor hasn’t fallen ill but did receive paid time off because of COVID exposure from a co-worker.

Life as the “Mask Police”

Flight attendants have the highest risk of catching COVID compared to any other non-health care profession, according to a World Economic Forum/Visual Capitalist report.

The CDC said that close quarters on planes may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 but added that most viruses don’t spread easily in the cabin due to advanced air filtration systems. Still, it’s hard to know exactly how many people have contracted COVID on airplanes because of long incubation periods.

“With the new mandate from the Biden administration, tensions are trending downward — not to imply that things are easy right now. We understand it’s incredibly difficult to wear a mask for a five-hour flight. No one is saying it’s fun.” — Paul Hartshorn Jr., a flight attendant at American Airlines and communications director of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants

Airplane crew members are hopeful that passengers follow the new safety rules.

Another flight attendant, let’s call her Allison, said an older passenger faked a medical condition. He claimed that he had a heart problem that made it difficult to breathe with a mask — yet didn’t show a doctor’s note and couldn’t share the exact name of his condition.

“He showed me a picture of a heart from the internet. What am I suppressed to do with that?” said Allison. After a few minutes of debate, Allison moved him to the back of the plane, which had three open rows. Upon exiting the plane, he cried, “Live free!”

“I thought he was an ignorant old man with a condition, but then I realized he was just an ignorant old man. Period,” she said.

Another flight attendant, let’s call her Nicole, reluctantly considers herself the “mask police” — and finds the once-enjoyable job exhausting.

“With seatbelts, you tell passengers to wear them because turbulence can lead to injuries. At the end of the day, I’m not the seatbelt police. I told you once. That’s it,” she said. “With masks, you are potentially jeopardizing other people’s safety, so I have to continue to encourage passengers to wear them,” said Nicole, who gratefully accepted a furlough a few months into the pandemic.

A Turning Tide?

The consequences for disruptive behavior on flights are getting more serious — and could lead to better passenger behavior.

In January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring masks to be worn on planes and in airports. Meanwhile, the FAA announced stricter enforcement aimed at disruptive flyers and said fines can reach $35,000.

A woman on a recent Delta flight from Miami to Atlanta is facing a $27,500 fine after allegedly striking a flight attendant after she and her companion were asked to leave the plane following a mask-wearing dispute.

“With the new mandate from the Biden administration, tensions are trending downward — not to imply that things are easy right now,” said Paul Hartshorn Jr., a flight attendant at American Airlines and communications director of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “We understand it’s incredibly difficult to wear a mask for a five-hour flight. No one is saying it’s fun.”

If the stress of physical safety wasn’t enough, many crew members are worried about losing work as thousands have been furloughed or laid off while travel demands plummeted.

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“Are their jobs secure? That has been one of the biggest stressors for our flight attendants,” said Hartshorn.

It’s important to remember that flight attendants have dealt with unruly passengers throughout their careers — from drunk people to passengers who simply refuse to sit during takeoff and landing.

Cecilia (not her real name) has been a flight attendant for years and says dealing with troublemakers is routine.

“People don’t want to sit down for takeoff or landing. They don’t want to check bags. They get angry at other passengers for having children,” she said.

“You just go to work and hope people like that decide not to fly that day. It’s like working as a server in a restaurant. Not everyone is easy to please and some people just want to complain.” &

Jared Shelly is a journalist based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]