Flight attendants: still the unsung heroes of 9/11

by Charlie Leocha on September 11, 2008

Over the seven years since 9/11, there have been many ceremonies, new memorials and remembrances for those who died in that day’s tragic events.

Police officers, firefighters and other first responders gather every year with politicians on stages across America. Yet few remember that the first casualties of the terrorist attacks were flight attendants. Sadly, airline crewmembers are almost never included in the tributes.

That’s a shame.

I’ve said so on every anniversary of the September attacks, and I’ll say it again this year.

Only last month, on a transatlantic flight I was told that another flight bound for America had gone into a cockpit lockdown after a suspected terrorist incident in the middle of the Atlantic. The pilot informed the crew about this ongoing incident and every member of the cabin crew went into high alert. Once again, flight attendants found themselves on the front line of a war whose battles are constantly shifting but ever exposing them to danger.

Airline flight attendants are the unsung heroes and frontline foot soldiers in this country’s “war on terrorism.” Though experts cannot predict when there will be another terrorist attack, they can all agree that one will come. New plans are certainly being tested to attack our transportation systems.

The stress on our airline systems has increased and will only get worse. And yet flight attendants continue to report to work every day, ready to do what they can to keep us safe. I hope the traveling public does not take them for granted.

Every time a plane takes off, every time a traveler stands up and walks toward the cockpit, and every time a passenger ducks behind his seat to dig through carry-on luggage, flight attendants go on high alert.

Seven years ago, immediately after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the media was filled with stories about “real heroes” — rescuers, police and firefighters who risked their lives to save workers in those buildings. The firefighters, EMTs and police deserve every accolade they receive. However, flight attendants should be praised as well.

Flight attendants face potential danger every time they go to work. Where once their main purpose was to see to in-flight comforts and provide knowledgeable assistance in case of an emergency landing, their new job requirements are much more nerve-racking. Worse, their work is almost always taken for granted.

What once was an airborne world of giddy tourists and grumpy businessmen is now a war zone. Trouble — perhaps deadly trouble — could break out in the cabin at any time. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But perhaps someday.

New terrorist dangers are unknown. So unknown, in fact, that the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other government organizations still cannot predict where, when or how an attack will take place.

While passengers grumble about the inconvenience of waiting in long security lines, taking off our shoes, putting liquids in checked baggage, and having our luggage and bodies probed, most of us have decided to fly anyway, at least to places that are important to us. We have that choice. Flight attendants don’t. If they want to continue being paid, they have to go to work.

The same is true of pilots, of course. But pilots are now barricaded inside their cockpits. Some have been given stun guns and others have been trained to carry firearms. But what are flight attendants getting?

Not much. Before captains lock themselves in the cockpit, they now basically tell the flight attendants that they will have to fend for themselves. They don’t have much choice — most everyone agrees that the cockpit door must stay locked.

Yes, some airlines now train flight attendants in the basics of self-defense: skills like coordinating with other flight attendants, maintaining distance, assuming a protective body position, and dealing with unruly passengers. Some airlines even offer advanced programs — on a voluntary basis — but the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) still, seven years later, hasn’t designed a system for evaluating this training and, worse, flight attendants still have a hard time getting time off to attend.

As for public recognition, there’s been almost nothing. Instead, what flight attendants have seen since I first wrote this story seven years ago is a continuing series of layoffs, downsizings and reductions in pay.

Are our memories so short?

Flight attendants were the most consistent source of information on 9/11 when, at the risk of their lives, they phoned airline operations personnel to let them know about the hijackings; they even provided seat numbers and descriptions of the hijackers. Flight attendants were most certainly involved with the in-cabin attack on the terrorists aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania instead of into a building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Later, in one of the few instances of terrorism thwarted in the act, a diminutive flight attendant physically prevented a fanatic from lighting a fuse to a shoe-bomb that would have downed American Airlines Flight 63 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

So, let’s get our priorities straight.

Baggage screeners earn between $25,000 and $38,000 a year. TSA supervisors earn $44,400 to $68,800 a year. Federal air marshals make between $36,000 and $84,000 a year. These workers receive all the standard government perks of medical care, vacations and insurance. Meanwhile, flight attendants, the airlines’ real frontline troops, receive starting salaries of $18,000 a year, or less, and don’t have a prayer of seeing $30,000 for at least three years. Vacation time in those years is meager, while time “on reserve” (waiting around in case another flight attendant is sick or gets stuck in traffic) seems to be endless.

To add insult to paltry pay, over the past three years many flight attendants have had their retirement programs and pensions stripped from them by their struggling airlines.

For years, we have heard the flight attendant mantra, “We are here for your safety.” Now those words are truer than ever. And safety, today, means far more than helping with oxygen masks, securing the overhead compartments, checking seat belts and opening emergency doors.

Let’s face it: Federal air marshals are not on most flights. While the plane is in the air, flight attendants are our first line of defense. They may be serving peanuts, pretzels and drinks, but they are constantly on watch until touchdown at the final destination.

Today’s flight attendants face what amounts to nonstop battle stress from an unidentified, furtive and unpredictable enemy.

I, for one, thank them for their service. All of us who fly should thank them as well.

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  • Frank

    WE HONOR OUR OWN:

    http://www.911flightcrewmemorial.org/

    “To our heroes: first taken, last remembered, now honored.”

    Men and women for whom the attack on airplanes was deeply and intensely personal built this memorial. It was the vision of Valerie Thompson, an American Airlines flight attendant with 20 years seniority, for whom the 9/11 attacks were a call to action to build a permanent remembrance to her colleagues and to honor all those aviation professionals whose lives changed forever on September 11. Her husband, Dean Thompson, sculpted the one-and-a-half-life-sized bronze figures adapted from an original design by Bryce Cameron Liston. The 18-foot structure is situated on the outskirts of Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, where a steady flow of commercial jetliners in their final landing approach can be seen in the distance, adding a living reminder of what we lost and what continues to be an object of terrorist obsession.

    Thank you, Charlie, for reposting this.

  • marge

    A very fitting tribute, Charlie. I am in awe of these unsuspecting heros and make it a point to thank them every time I fly.

  • Puzzled

    It’s bothered me for a long time that their employers, the airlines, won’t uniformly provide the advanced self-defense training on a paid-time and continuing basis. I think that speaks volumes in terms of corporate commitment to both passenger and crew safety.

  • GLE

    Thank you. It’s a hard day to put on your uniform, walk down the street, get the bus, take the train, and show up at the airport. People look today. They notice a flight attendant going off to work today. And today is far from an easy day. I’m off to work now.

    Thank You.

  • http://cestbeth.wordpress.com Elizabeth

    What a moving post, Charlie, and a poignant reminder on this sad day.

  • Daisy

    This is so true and so sad. Thank you for writing this. I wish it would be published by major news outlets as a reminder.

  • JP

    It’s stuff like this I’d like to shove in the face of people who misbehave on flights and give the flight attendants a lot of grief. It is and will remain an open nerve for me.

  • http://www.ffocus.org Bruce InCharlotte

    I’m flying tomorrow. I will certainly be thanking my FA for the work they do.

  • youJean

    I worked for a major airline for ten years and got to know several flight attendants. I couldn’t agree more with the author.

    Another group generally overlooked is the air traffic controllers. That’s a very stressful job on good days. It was nothing short of a miracle that they got every airplane in the skies above America on the ground, safely, in three hours.

  • Frank

    ANOTHER MEMORIAL: http://www.afanet.org/kittyhawk/HTML/

    Memorial to Flight Attendants Lost in Service

    The Wright brothers memorial in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, attracts millions of visitors each year who, when they survey the site of the Wright brothers’ first flight, will also be reminded of the people who have sacrificed their lives for aviation. An AFA memorial on Kill Devil Hill, the site of the popular monument, reads: “In memory of our fallen heroes: We remember all those safety professionals who have lost their lives as flight attendants in the aviation industry.”

    The monument also lists the names of flight attendants killed in the line of duty. The innovative achievements of the Wright brothers gave birth to an industry that changed human civilization. The dedication and sacrifices of aviation workers around the world enable that industry to serve air travel needs that have become a part of everyday life. We will never forget our fallen flight attendants.

  • M Rogers

    Thank you for your article.

    I am a Flight Attendant for American Airlines, and have been for 23 years.

    Yesterday, September 11, I got on an airplane for an 8 hr flight across the Pacific and not one of my 200 passengers even acknowledged the day to myself or any of my co-workers. May I also say that each of us were wearing either a memorial pin for our lost friends seven years ago, or the American Flag pin.

    It is sad to think, that the terror of what our fellow flight attendants aboard those planes must have felt that dreadful day has been lost on everyone but those of us who deal with the threat each and everyday.

    So again Mr. Leocha, on behalf of the flight attendants at American Airlines,
    THANK YOU!

  • JCJ

    I take exception to the marginalizing of Federal Air Marshals in this article. While I concur that flight attendants serve a vital purpose and should be commended for such, their accolades should not come at the expense of the reputation and mission of the Federal Air Marshal Service. Moreover, though flight crews may receive little credit for their “frontline” status on the war on terror, the plights of their industry and community are well vetted to the American Public.

    As many readers may be aware, in recent months there has been a myriad of critical editorials, opinion polls, and general commentary associated with the dismal experience that is modern day air travel. However, despite the exalted volume of attention this issue receives, there are a percentage of air travelers, albeit a relatively small one, that is often neglected whenever this subject surfaces throughout the media.

    United States Federal Air Marshals fly an average of five consecutive days a week, eight to twenty hours each day (contingent upon international or domestic missions,) within the confines of an ineffectual air travel system, and for a managing body that often regards their service with indifference and implements draconian policies that adversely affect their lives. These agents are incessantly away from their families, transit to and through perilous locations, and mingle amongst perhaps the most disgruntled passenger and flight crew population in aviation history. When a passenger incurs a delay or contrived cabin service, they can simply go home and/or suspend patronage with that airline. Air marshals do not have this option and regularly find themselves at the “mercy” of sanctimonious air carriers, as well as the muddled American air traffic control system.

    So the next time a passenger, flight attendant, or gate agent has a “tough” day, or feels that they are not receiving enough credit, perhaps he or she should take a moment of pause to consider the men and women of the Federal Air Marshal Service who are sworn to thanklessly protect Americans in the air, regularly at their own peril and personal sacrifice.

  • Frank

    On September 14th, 2008 at 1:53 pm JCJ said
    So the next time a passenger, flight attendant, or gate agent has a “tough” day, or feels that they are not receiving enough credit, perhaps he or she should take a moment of pause to consider the men and women of the Federal Air Marshal Service who are sworn to thanklessly protect Americans in the air, regularly at their own peril and personal sacrifice.
    =========================================================

    JCJ, the “SPOTLIGHT” was for the FLIGHT ATTENDANTS on that day IN THIS ARTICLE.
    The FAM program is a RESULT of 9-11-01 (current size)………………There were NO “FAM” HEROES that day. That’s the JUST of this article………UNSUNG HERO.

  • Frank

    KEEP READING: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/travel/14Airline.html?_r=1&ref=travel&oref=slogin

    In a behind-the-scenes look at the other side of air travel, I donned a navy suit and starched white shirt earlier this summer and became a flight attendant for two days. With the cooperation of American Airlines, I first went to flight attendant training school at the company’s Flagship University in Fort Worth, Tex., where I learned what to do in an onboard emergency, from how to open an emergency exit window on a 777 aircraft (it’s heavier than you may think) to operating a defibrillator (there are pictures to help you get the pads in the right place). I then flew three legs in two days: a round-trip journey between Dallas and New York, and then back to New York the next day.

    And though the other flight attendants knew I was a ringer, the passengers did not. Thus I got a crash course in what airline personnel have to put up with these days — and, after just one day on the job, began to wonder why the phrase “air rage” is only applied to passengers. Believe me, there were a few people along the way, like the demanding guy in first class who kept barking out drink orders as the flight progressed (until he finally passed out), whom I would have been more than happy to show to the exit, particularly when we were 35,000 feet in the air.

    WHAT’S it like to be a flight attendant these days? That’s what I’ve often found myself wondering as I sit in my seat, waiting impatiently as yet another flight is delayed and my connection threatened, while around me are passengers fighting with each other over the lack of space in the shared bin, or complaining about having been bumped from an earlier flight, or swearing “never again” to fly this specific airline because they have been stuck in a middle seat even though they booked their ticket six months ago.

  • G Okicich

    First, let me thank you on behalf of all flight attendants for your kind thoughts and words. They are truly appreciated.
    I have been a flight attendant for almost 40 years and will be hanging up my wings next month. I have loved almost every minute of my career and would ‘t trade it for anything else.

    Times have indeed changed and the industry isn’t what it used to be and that can be both bad and good. I have cultivated wonderful friends and seen parts of the world that most people will never see in their lifetime, and for that I am very grateful.

    You must be a very forgiving and compassionate man to travel as much as you do and not be bitter and cranky with all that you have to go through as a passenger. It is not easy for anyone anymore but I still wouldn’t trade the life I have been blessed to have lived.

    Thanks so much for letting me know that there are people like you who appreciate what we do. I will take your kind words with me as I sale off into the sunset to start a new chapter in my life.

    All the best to you, thanks again, and happy flying!

  • Dianne PM

    Thank you so much Charlie, for your wonderful article about flight attendants! I was a flight attendant for American Airlines for 42 years, and I retired on November 1st, right after 9/11. I was very lucky, because I was at retirement age, but so many flight attendants weren’t, and they had to continue getting on airplanes wondering if they might be next. I had planned to work for at least one more year, because we had just signed a really great contract (one of our best ever), but when the tragedy happened, I decided it was time to hang it up, as it wasn’t worth the stress. I still have many friends who haven’t reached retirement yet, and I worry about them, and all F/A’s. I didn’t know any of the crew on those flights, but my heart goes out to their families, and all the families who lost loved ones that terribly sad day! I just wanted to tell you how very much I appreciated the accolades you gave to the F/A’s, as they were the very first to suffer! And, I especially praise the brave courage of some to call management to give information, rather than call their families! That is true dedication!

    Thanks again so much! You can’t begin to know how much your words were appreciated, and long over-due! I will forward your comments to every flight attendant and pilot I know, starting with my husband who was with A.A. too.

  • Laura Glading

    Dear Charlie:

    I read with interest your recent commentary on “Flight Attendants: still the unsung heroes of 9/11″ which appeared Thursday, September 11, 2008, on your online travel news site Tripso.com, and I wanted to commend you for your perceptive observations. You correctly point out that the flight attendant contributions on that horrifying day 7 years ago have largely gone unrecognized, as has our continuing role as first responders in what has become the global struggle against terrorism.

    Since that dreadful day, our careers have changed beyond our wildest imaginings. Today, while we are we prepared to handle a potentially lethal security breach, we must do so with fewer tools, making our work lives all but unbearable. We work longer hours with less rest at greatly reduced pay, just to name a few of our challenges.

    At a time when we are struggling to save our careers, it is reassuring that you are able to recognize and acknowledge our professionalism, despite our hardships, and took the time to share your insight through your commentary.

    Laura R. Glading
    Association of Professional Flight Attendants, President

  • Mike

    In response to:
    So the next time a passenger, flight attendant, or gate agent has a “tough” day, or feels that they are not receiving enough credit, perhaps he or she should take a moment of pause to consider the men and women of the Federal Air Marshal Service who are sworn to thanklessly protect Americans in the air, regularly at their own peril and personal sacrifice.

    FAM’s (Federal Air Marshall’s) are on less than 5% of flights, its estimated that in reality they’re onboard only 1% of flights. Unlike Flight Attendants, Federal Air Mashalls have never saved a life, they may actually be adding to the problem by putting guns into the cabin. 99 times out of a 100 FAM’s wont be on the flight so this is why F/A training is crucial. F/As have saved lives by stopping an attempted hijacking while FAM’s have not. Even when there is a security lapse on board (NW327 for example) FAM’s did nothing while the F/As handled everything. The next time a FAM has a bad perhaps they should think of all the F/As, gate agents, and pilots who actually had to do something and help someone. Where were Air Marshall’s when a terrorist attempted to detonate a bomb on an American Airlines plane over the mid Atlantic? Where were Air Marshall’s when a man attempted to take over a Qantas 717 and fly it into a building? Where were Air Marshall’s on BA2069? I’m not sure were Air Marshall’s were but the F/As fought the attackers and saved the lives of many, many people. FAM’s get paid quite a good salary to sit in first class and do nothing while F/As get terrible wages and have actually saved lives. So don’t claim your hero’s until you actually do something and save a life.

  • Kitty

    Thank you SO much for writing this column! Also thanks to all of the Flight Attendants who are out there every day risking their lives for us, the travelers. They do have a thankless job for the most part. What are we going to do when they all decide that it isn’t worth all the crap that is heaped on them daily? I have seen people on flights treat them worse than they would treat their worst enemy, and the Flight Attendant will continue smiling and serving. My daughter was a Flight Attendant for 4 years after 9/11. Last year she quit because she couldn’t seem to get ahead, the pressure, the stress and spending  hours and hours in airports all over the world waiting to fill the spot of people who didn’t make it on time. Now she is in school studying to be a nurse. Another thankless job, but at least they make a decent wage with benefits.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1443762234 Mary Lou Bigelow

    Thank you for this article! I was a purser for Pan Am many years ago 1962-1964. Those were the fun days. Flying was fun and adventurous. My hat goes off to flight attendants of today with the stress they have to endure. This is an important statement of their value as guardians of the skyways!

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