Frazzled at 30,000 Feet? So Is Your Flight Attendant (part two)

PART II

Tiffany Hawk, a former flight attendant with United and Virgin, thinks fatigue is already the biggest problem facing flight crews and already has misgivings about the impending tarmac rules. “Going back to the gate could mean missing the only opportunity to take off,” she says. “Bringing a jet to a gate is like parking a car in the city. For every plane pulled up to a jetbridge, there is another one circling the tarmac and waiting for a spot.”

Airlines love to pin the blame for extended flight delays on Mother Nature, but some flight attendants point out that the new regulations don’t take the elements into sufficient account. While scenarios could vary by airline, cabin crews contend that allowing passengers to deplane after three hours due to bad weather could also lead to planes missing their allotted departure slots and, perhaps worse, preemptive cancellations.

These are people worth listening to. The Dept. of Labor Website lists as occupations related to that of flight attendant “emergency medical technicians and paramedics” and “fire fighters”: and they’re not kidding. Think of Flight 253 or back to USAirways Flight 1549 – Capt. Chesley Sullenberger guided the hobbled Airbus into the Hudson, but that was just half the ordeal: then came the evacuation. In a joint statement, flight attendants Doreen Welsh, Donna Dent and Sheila Dail wrote “We are proud of the work we did on Flight 1549 and know the more than six thousand flight attendants at USAirways – and flight attendants across our profession – are working hard, every day, to help keep the skies safe.”

The three-hour rule, which is now on the books but will actually take effect just ahead of the busy summer travel season, may speak unwittingly to a disconnect between regulators and the people who actually make the flights take flight. The new rulings stem from a desire to eliminate the kinds of monumental flight delays that more than anything in recent memory have given the airline industry a bad rap. But in four short months, things could get really interesting…or backed up beyond belief.

After the issue of fatigue – itself a safety hazard, as a Northwest pilot’s overshooting his destination earlier this year demonstrated – and looming delays, flight crews have other worries that impact them and, in one way or another, their charges. One flight attendant this reporter spoke to (for USAirways) cited management as a growing problem. And a pilot for USAirways said one of his biggest concerns is (ahem) journalists. But former flight attendant Hawk says what many flight attendants are thinking: “Terrorists and layoffs both pose such an immediate and interrelated threat that — after fatigue — I can’t order them two or three.”

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