How Flight Attendants Are Set Up to Fail

They’re stuck between corporations trying to extract maximum profits from each flight and passengers who can broadcast their frustration on social media.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Two weeks ago, a man was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after being told it was overbooked. And late last week, American Airlines suspended a flight attendant after a fight nearly broke out between a passenger and the crew, over a stroller. What did the two incidents have in common? Both stories went viral after passengers’ videos showcased the rotten conditions of flying in coach today. But also, in both cases, it’s not particularly clear that the airline employees caught on camera had many better options.

On the infamous United flight, employees, following protocol, had to call security agents to remove a passenger in Chicago, due to a last-minute need to transport crew to fly out of Louisville the following day. United’s contract of carriage gives employees broad latitude to deny boarding to passengers. On the other hand, it is terrible to force a sitting passenger to get up and de-board a plane. So, the attendants were stuck: Either four people already seated had to leave the plane, or a flight scheduled the next day would have been grounded due to the lack of crew—which would have punished even more paying customers.

On the American flight, it seems that employees were also following protocol when they removed a mother’s stroller. According to the airline’s contract of carriage, a stroller in this case must be be checked at the gate. When a brusque employee forcibly removed it from a crying mother, another male passenger, acting on an understandable human instinct, got up and threatened to punch the American employee. The situation ended peacefully, but American has suspended the employee.

It’s easy to blame airline employees when something goes wrong on a flight. After all, who else is there to scream at—Boeing? Federal regulators? The invisible authors of the contract language? This is not to say that these incidents were not awful for passengers—they were. But it’s also the case that flight attendants are getting shamed for doing their job during the flare-ups that inevitably arise from a bad system. Their jobs are getting increasingly difficult, thanks to two big trends: the airlines’ corporate power to maximize profits from each flight, and flyers’ power to broadcast their frustration on social media when tensions boil over.

After 9/11, the airlines suffered a wave of bankruptcies and an awful decade for some of the largest carriers. To get their numbers back to profitability, airlines cut the number of crew members per plane and added seats to coach, shrinking legroom and cutting amenities for passengers. (During this time, many airline employees also saw their promised pensions evaporate.) Rising fuel costs in the 2000s encouraged them to squeeze even more money from customers. Meanwhile, the fixation on a low-cost/low-service model was validated by consumers, who used price-comparison tools to find the cheapest path to their destination. A wave of mergers in recent years has led to consolidation of the industry, so that today four carriers account for 80 percent of all domestic seats sold. In such an oligopolistic environment, there are fewer airlines to compete on the key metric of their customers’ comfort and satisfaction.

Helping passengers has become "more challenging due to tight schedules, overcrowded planes, shrinking seats, and limited overhead bin space,” said Bob Ross, the president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union, in a statement after the American Airlines incident. He’s biased. But he’s right, too.

The major airlines posted record profits last year, and their productivity has come in large part from squeezing both customers and employees. Seat width has declined by about 5 to 10 percent since the mid-1980s, while “pitch”—the distance between a fixed point in each seat row—has shrunk between three to six inches in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, since 2000, both total passengers-per-airline-employee and “available seat miles”-per-employee (a standard measure of revenue potential) are up 20 percent or more for the major carriers, according to the Airline Data Project. In short: less room, smaller crew, higher profits, angrier passengers—and airline employees are caught in the middle of it all.

Meanwhile, just as flying became less comfortable—less legroom, fewer amenities—passengers today are left with one basic weapon to wield against any perceived injustice: They can turn on the camera function on their phones and point them at airline employees. Poor customer service is now punishable by public shaming, at the same time that it’s become harder for crew members to provide adequate customer service. Customers and crew could be united against the airlines’ profit obsession. But in reality, nobody else is fighting for more or better-paid crew members—not passengers, who’d prefer cheap flights, nor airlines, who’d like to maximize the profitability of each seat.

Now that every airplane has become a potential showdown between crew members and cramped passengers, the airlines train their employees to defuse the anger of flyers, like first responders to inevitable disasters. To the crews’ credit, it might be working. The number of “unruly” passengers peaked at 310 in 2004. In the first seven months of last year, federal statistics recorded just 31.

But the last two weeks show that despite this overall improvement, crew members are still set up for public shaming. They are stuck between corporations that have no scruples about turning flying into a Dickensian experience and passengers who are willing to become ad-hoc documentarians of the petty abuses of the industry.