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Christopher Elliott: Do flight attendants care anymore?

  • Published Sunday, Sep. 4, 2011, at 12:09 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 4, 2011, at 7:25 a.m.

When, exactly, did flight attendants stop caring about us? I ask for two reasons: First, because of the luscious new trailers for the upcoming TV show "Pan Am," which depicts svelte young stewardesses — yes, that's what they were called back then — serving passengers.

Hard to swallow, that one. But yes, they served passengers back in the day.

And second, because of the preponderance of horror stories from readers like you that suggest things have gone too far in the other direction — from the "coffee, tea, or me" stereotypes of pre-deregulation air travel to modern-day flight attendants who may actually hate us.

Well, "hate" may be too strong a word. How about "strongly dislike"?

Consider the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index numbers. Here are the 10 worst-performing companies, according to the survey. The score you see next to the company is on a scale of 1 to 100.

1. Pepco Holdings (54)

2. Delta Air Lines (56)

3. Time Warner Cable (59)

4. Comcast (59)

5. Charter Communications (59)

6. United Airlines (61)

7. US Airways (62)

8. American Airlines (63)

9. Continental (64)

10. UnitedHealth (65)

That's five airlines in the top 10. You have to work pretty hard to pull in that kind of performance, and it can only happen with the full cooperation of your employees.

But it's the stories from passengers like you that make me wonder if the love has turned to hate. And I'm not even talking about the headline-grabbing reports like flight attendant Steven Slater's meltdown on JetBlue Airways.

Lea McFall was flying from India back to the U.S. on American Airlines when one of her friends started feeling a little ill. The likely cause was her final meal in Delhi. She had a severe case of food poisoning.

"She was sick in the restroom for quite a while, completely ignored by the flight attendants," she says. "And she was in the back of the plane, in their hangout area."

When she mentioned that she was concerned her friend might need medical attention, a flight attendant shrugged her off, telling her, "This happens all the time."

Her friend tried to lie down on several empty seats, but a purser shook her awake and told her those seats belonged to the crew members.

"I couldn't believe how rude the flight attendants were about it," she says. "We felt completely helpless, and they didn't seem to care at all that she was sick — only cared about having a place to sit for their break."

Her friend eventually recovered, but McFall's faith in American Airlines was shaken. She says she'll avoid the carrier, if possible.

Reader Nancy Hicks tells another story of crew member callousness. She was flying with crutches after a recent foot operation, and notified United Airlines she'd need a wheelchair at the airport. Instead, she was greeted by a "surly" skycap who waved her into the terminal without trying to help.

"That's where the wheelchair people all wait," he yelled. "Everyone knows that."

She eventually had to board the small regional jet by herself in crutches, in the pouring rain.

"Not a single person from the airline even attempted to help me or find another way to get me onto the plane," she says. (She is, of course, referring to the flight attendants who she assumed would lend her a hand, but didn't.)

As you can imagine, flight attendants see this differently. Some say passengers are too demanding, insisting on first-class service for bargain fares.

"Somehow, people still compare us today with how things were in the 1950s and 1960s and then are upset when those expectations aren't met," flight attendant John Deming says. Deming told me the average flight attendant loves his or her job and is happy to be helpful to every person they greet "within reason."

One other thing: Flight attendants are under a great deal of stress because of increased security threats, continually changing federal regulations, bankruptcies, furloughs, salary cuts, and loss of pensions and benefits. But Deming agrees that there's never a reason to forget your manners.

I agree. I think there are plenty of reasons for flight attendants to be unhappy, but none to be impolite. I'm especially troubled by a saying that's used a lot, mostly privately, among flight attendants: "We're here to save your butt — not kiss it."

If the "service" element had actually been stripped out of the flight attendant's job description, then why not hire security guards or EMTs to take their place? Wouldn't they do a far more efficient job of saving or protecting lives? (Also, their uniforms would be cheaper.)

No, I don't think all flight attendants hate us. But too many of them seem to, according to passengers.

That's no way to fly.

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