Frazzled at 30,000 Feet? So Is Your Flight Attendant

by Anthony Grant

As the botched Christmas Day attack on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit proved yet again, there’s considerably more to a flight attendants’ job description than uttering “Want ice with that?” on a loop. Whether doing an in-flight safety demo for the umpteenth time or subduing a terrorist for the unforeseen first, flight attendants are on the frontlines of just about everything that’s shaking the airline industry today. Both overworked water bearer and industry bellwether, merely functioning in a convenience-impaired post-9/11 world would — one might think — push many a working flight attendant to the end of his or her tether. Economic and security issues have never been hotter. Add to them new federal regulations that will require airlines to let passengers in grounded airplanes deplane after three hours: a victory for frazzled travelers, but no cause for joy among the nation’s sky workers.

The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents more than 55,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, so far has no official position on the new regulations. But concern at 30,000 feet is mounting. “The three-hour rule will lead to more flight cancellations,” said Kim D., a flight attendant working a December Delta flight from JFK to LAX, “because if we have to get passengers off the plane after three hours, cabin crews could decide to go home.” The reason for this nerve-wracking possibility? It’s that flight crews’ work schedules, which are governed by the FAA, are already pretty bruising. Flight attendants are allowed to work a maximum of 14 hours a day, but that can be extended to 20 hours if necessary. And often, it is: Since Sept. 11, 2001, longer shifts have been less the exception than the rule. And if attendants on board a grounded plane calculate that allowing just a single passenger to deplane will push their work day beyond 14 hours, they could refuse to fly, leading to cascading delays and untold airport havoc.

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