Flight attendants: still the unsung heroes of 9/11

by Charlie Leocha on September 11, 2012

Over the 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.

Airline flight attendants are the unsung heroes and frontline foot soldiers in this country’s “war on terrorism.” 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 alert.

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 security. 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.

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 half-dozen years many flight attendants have had their retirement programs and pensions stripped from them by their struggling airlines.

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.

Photo: By Tomas Pihl, Flickr Creative Commons

Print Friendly
Be Sociable, Share!

  • Anonymous

    One of your best articles, Charlie.

  • Pingback: Flight attendants: still the unsung heroes of 9/11 | TravelgistTravelgist

  • Airgirl

    Thank you

  • Debbie

    A heartfelt thanks Charlie!!

  • Flight Attendant

    This country is obsessed with idol worship. Sucks that flight crews bodies went smashing into the trade centers after being slain with razor blades ( allegedly ). Yeah, they were just doing their jobs, just like the fire fighters policemen, and all others. Let’s just be thankful human nature can be sacrificial, and kind at times. Screw who gets the credit. Nobody won.

  • Frenchystew

    Thank you

  • HawaiianFlyBoy

    Thank you!

  • ton lammering

    while i can agree with that nobody won, you still have to accept that on that day a lot of people went beyond duty and paid the ultimate price for that. A price that is still being paid by wife’s husband, children etc. every every day. Remembering these people might be a small comfort for these people, so don’t see it as worship see it as a small gesture, for them.

  • bimbobarb

    THANK YOU

  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.borden.58 Susan Borden

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your article is one of the extraordinarily few that touches on the sacrifices made by the very first victims and heroes of that tragedy. Most importantly, you address the very real challenges we face as flight attendants in our vigilance against terrorism. We try under truly difficult and often punishing conditions to protect the passengers entrusted to our care. In fact, they are sometimes a challenge to the job we are doing through their complacency and refusal to assist us in complying with the safety and security regulations designed to protect them.
    Thank you for acknowledging and taking the time to bring attention to these overlooked, brave and selfless crew members who gave their lives trying to save others. Susan Borden, Flight attendant, Delta airlines

  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.borden.58 Susan Borden

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your article is one of the extraordinarily few that touches on the sacrifices made by the very first victims and heroes of that tragedy. Most importantly, you address the very real challenges we face as flight attendants in our vigilance against terrorism. We try under truly difficult and often punishing conditions to protect the passengers entrusted to our care. In fact, they are sometimes a challenge to the job we are doing through their complacency and refusal to assist us in complying with the safety and security regulations designed to protect them.
    Thank you for acknowledging and taking the time to bring attention to these overlooked, brave and selfless crew members who gave their lives trying to save others. Susan Borden, Flight attendant, Delta airlines

  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.borden.58 Susan Borden

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your article is one of the extraordinarily few that touches on the sacrifices made by the very first victims and heroes of that tragedy. Most importantly, you address the very real challenges we face as flight attendants in our vigilance against terrorism. We try under truly difficult and often punishing conditions to protect the passengers entrusted to our care. In fact, they are sometimes a challenge to the job we are doing through their complacency and refusal to assist us in complying with the safety and security regulations designed to protect them.
    Thank you for acknowledging and taking the time to bring attention to these overlooked, brave and selfless crew members who gave their lives trying to save others. Susan Borden, Flight attendant, Delta airlines

  • debbie

    Pretty disgusting what “Fight Attendant” above this post said. Its not idol worship and for you being a flight attendant well… probably not a good one for sure. Hope that I don’t ever fly with you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brianna-Morse/733146639 Brianna Morse

    Amen Brother!! As a Flight Attendant I thank you wholeheartedly for this story!!

  • Tamara

    One in a million! Thank you so much for thinking of us:-)

  • http://twitter.com/sassystewrants Sassy Stew

    LOL @ “I hope the traveling public does not take them for granted.”

  • http://twitter.com/sassystewrants Sassy Stew

    The article is fab, thank you! xx

  • Gabrielle

    I got chills reading this article. Thank you. It’s good to know not all people take us for granted.

  • JD

    Thank you for thinking of us! Its the same in the UK!

  • Jana– Delta Purser

    Thanks for remembering what a “Game-Changer” 9/11 was for our “Glamorous” profession. I am thankful every time I land safely and walk off the plane; exhausted from “protecting” the traveling public. It’s a tough job these days.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you so much for your recognition of our work. Yes, it can be very stressful, at times, but I truly love my job and care about my passengers. We think about that threat every flight we work; I wish people realized what that would be like – every day you go to work, always having that thought of potential disaster on your mind. Thanks again for your article. We appreciate your attention. Fly safe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1531639856 Tameka Yolanda Bethea

    very beautiful..Thanks for reminding them and us. The traveling public has no idea how low our pay is, the intense training, the personalities, delays, cancellations and etc we deal with on a daily basis. Then wrap around that always being alert for security breeches and wondering will we be home to see our families at the end of our long work days. We make it look seamless..

  • Lynda

    Thank you. I am going to print this out and carry several copies with me for the next time someone goes “off” on me for whatever rule/law I have to enforce. It will give them something to read on their way to jail. Few and far between, but then, so are tributes like yours – thank you so much.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.adam.581 Karen Adam

    Lets all take a thought for all of those who have died doing their jobs on board. Like this cabin crew/flight crew receive little or absolutely no recognition and a paid a pennies….. This is a job that u do out of love and devotions so come together and give those who have died doing their jobs a thought everytime u travel or everytime you hear or see an aeroplane, KMP (ex SAA for 27 yrs)

  • flygirl

    thank you for putting into words, what i’ve always felt for those of us in this profession, how overlooked the importance and significance the role of ‘flight attendant’ and what it meant that day, the days after 9/11, and present day for us. not much has changed–we are still the sacrificial lambs willing to do whatever it takes to safe guard the cockpit and the flying public all without receiving the recognition we are so overdue. a little respect and compliance from our travelers goes a long way. perhaps if the airline industry as a whole were to respect the flight attendant profession more than just someone delivering a drink and picking up trash in the cabin, and acknowledge us as the first line of defense in keeping our skies safe, the flying public’s perception would change too.

  • Joanie

    Thank you

  • Phil

    Could not have said it any better. Thee Cheers for Flight Attentdants.

  • Paul

    Thank you very much for articulating something I’ve often thought about. The very first people to die from the 911 attacks were Flight Attendants and I appreciate you acknowledging that fact. As a Flight Attendant for 25 years, I have often felt that society heaps great disrespect upon us. I love my job and I’m happy to see that you think otherwise.

  • Puma

    Thank you……really appreciate the facts of the job expressed so clearly.

  • TWA Alumni

    I knew two of the Flight Attendants on the AA flights and have read of their heroism and the detailed and valuable information they supplied to ground control personnel. I also had a dear friend on F11 that was able to call someone and leave a voice mail describing the manner in which the F/A handled the emergency and how one of them died at the hands of one of the hijackers. Flight Attendants are surely our first line of defense when it comes to terrorism in the skies. Before and since 9/11 I’ve watched the demise of our airlines while overseas airlines thrive under regulation and monetary support of their goverments. Shame on our goverment for not going back to the days when our domestic airlines were regulated. Bring back sky marshalls – they at least provide some kind of security in the passenger cabin.
    As a trained Flight Attendant, I know that is one of the hardest jobs in the airlines and one of the most dangerous. Kudos to those that do it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dakota.knows Dakota Knows

    This is why, even if I’m in a bad mood (you know how traveling is these days), I’m still polite and respectful of the flight crew, their stress level has to be through the roof most days. And they do this every day, I don’t think I could. Thank you all for being friendly and polite in return as well as vigilant.

  • Katy Virgin America

    I don’t know what to say thank you seems like its not enough but we do appreciate your article..i personally wish it would post in every majornews paper in every city… THANK YOU:)

  • Anonymous

    Right on!

  • crys

    Thank you! Everytime it was/is celebrated at my son’s school, young soldiers in their fatigues or fire fighters show up who never felt the sadness that I felt. Nor did anyone ever mention a flight attendant or pilot. They knew that I was a flight attendant. I still get chills thinking that I flew a flight from Washington D.C to San Francisco on 9/10/2001 on one of the struck air carriers.

  • AAFA

    Thank you, Mr. Leocha.

  • FlightAttendant

    Thank you. I have been a Flight Attendant 34 years (TWA/AA) and you “get it”. God bless all who perished and all the first responders. It is nice to know everyone has not forgotten the crews.

  • FlightAttendant

    Oh no. I see someone previously chose same name only with a space in between. We are two separate people. I guess I could have been more original or just used my name. Apologies.

  • tahoestew

    Thank you Charlie!

  • Angela Keating

    Thank you for putting this information out there. Very fair article, IMO.

  • J

    Great article and so true. Thanks!

  • Cherita

    As a 34 year flight attendant i would just like to say thank you for much for your kind words.

  • A Greatful Flight Attendant

    No one is talking about idol worship… they are talking about acknowledgment. As a 34 year flight attendant, who just happens work for an airline that lost planes that day, I would like to say thank you Charlie for writing this article. Sounds like it might be time to hang up your wings and find another job. You missed the entire point of this story. Safe flying everyone.

  • JF Sebastian

    Flight Attendants should have to be babes. Period. More important than being able to take out one single lone wolf shoe fanatic. Mathematically, given all the hours and hours of human air travel….being a complete babe is way more important for the overall human spirit.

  • BunnyD

    I’m a flight attendant with AA. Thank you for recognizing what our responsibilities, and how small our recognitions are. I wished our executives read this too. (maybe they do, but they don’t care)

  • Gigi

    We have a lovely daughter-in-law that is a flight attendance and I feel like they do get overlooked. It is no longer “just a job”. It is definitely much more stressful than it used to be. They take the brunt of unhappy commuters every single flight.

  • jan hoffman

    Just retired from flt attendant status after 46 years as a flt attendant. I do not think our importance HSS ever been recognized

  • Joan petty

    Thank you

  • Jennifer

    Excellent article! Very few outside of the industry have any notion of how our jobs and lives have changed since that fateful day. Thank You!

Previous post:

Next post: