Flight Attendants' Stress Grows As Airlines Struggle

Flight attendant Erin Gailey i i

hide captionErin Gailey has flown for Alaska Airlines for 25 years. She says the job of a flight attendant has changed dramatically.

Frank Langfitt/NPR
Flight attendant Erin Gailey

Erin Gailey has flown for Alaska Airlines for 25 years. She says the job of a flight attendant has changed dramatically.

Frank Langfitt/NPR

Flight attendants in America have a tougher job these days. Airline companies are reeling from high oil prices, and new baggage fees are annoying more customers. Caught in the middle is the flight attendant, the public face of an industry that's on the ropes.

When Stefanee Steffenhagen started working for Air Wisconsin — a US Airways commuter service — several years ago, she thought it was the beginning of what she called "that little-girl dream."

But the reality of the job doesn't quite measure up. In her brief career, Steffenhagen has seen a lot of change.

Today, she has fewer amenities to offer passengers, and they're increasingly angry about it. She says one of her toughest jobs is just getting women to put their purses in the overhead compartment.

"I have to fight with some of these passengers to get all their stuff up there," says Steffenhagen, 34, who lives in Northern Virginia.

With new baggage charges coming, she expects conditions will only get worse. "I'm dreading what they're going to try to bring on the aircraft," she says.

Moonlighting As A Bartender

Steffenhagen makes about $30,000 a year. On her days off, she tends bar to make extra cash. She usually flies to places like Greensboro, N.C., or Islip, N.Y. She dreams of more exciting routes but wonders if time is running out.

"I do want to go to maybe a mainline carrier, and do the Paris, London overnights," she says. "But I don't know now, because is that airline going to still be there in two years?"

This is not what the Association of Flight Attendants had in mind. The union, which represents tens of thousands of workers, wanted to build a profession where members could earn a decent salary, educate their children and retire with a pension.

But Patricia Friend, the union's president, says that the industry is in such bad shape that the hope of a stable, middle-class lifestyle is "gone."

The fortunes of airline workers have been falling for years.

Decline Vs. Recline

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, companies began slashing wages and benefits. To save money, airlines are putting crews in cheaper hotels. Stephen Schembs, who flies for US Airways, says the decline has been striking.

"We used to be [in] downtown Chicago, right there on the Miracle Mile," Schembs recalls. "Now, we're at a hotel in Skokie at a strip mall."

In recent months, the airlines' finances have worsened as the high cost of oil has gobbled up profits. Erin Gailey, a flight attendant with Alaska Airlines, feels the impact of oil prices all the time. To save fuel, the airlines are getting rid of as much extra weight as they can, including bottled water and eating utensils. So sometimes Gailey just runs out of things.

When passengers complain, Gailey — a spunky woman with 25 years of experience — tells them: "Pretend like you're camping."

Camping, of course, is not what most passengers have in mind. When Gailey got into the business in the 1980s, airlines actually competed based on service. Even in coach, there was a wine bottle on every tray, Gailey recalls.

Those days are long gone. Today, if a passenger wants a snack pack, it costs $5.

High-Altitude Referee

Gailey says the role of the flight attendant is more complicated now as well. As flying has become more trying, there's more conflict in the cabin, and it falls to flight attendants to diffuse it.

"We can't call 911," she says. "We are the police. We are the psychiatrist. We are the doctor. We are the nurse. We are the bomb squad."

Many of Gailey's colleagues complain about working conditions. One pilot, James Dixon, said his salary had been slashed by about $30,000. But Gailey says she refuses to let the industry's problems affect her performance.

"For me, it's about my personal integrity," she says. Gailey says she does a better job today than she did when she first started, and she still thinks she works for a great carrier.

"If I didn't," she says, "I wouldn't keep going."

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