International Flight Attendants’ Day – A Tribute to Our Ministering Angels

What should be done to look after these flying angels better?

5 mins read
[Photo credit: She The People]

“We may travel the four corners of the world, but our job is to make you feel at home.”

International Flight Attendants’ Day – also called International Cabin Crew Members’ Day – falls on 31st May each year. To mark the day this year, The International Transport Workers’ Federation said inter alia:

“ As we mark another Cabin Crew Day, the ITF is proud to take this opportunity to reflect on the essential role these workers play in keeping the world moving. It is hard to imagine what aviation would possibly look like without the dedication, professionalism, and hard work of cabin crew. But today is also a reminder of the enormous challenges these workers face. Today is about celebration, but it is also about redoubling our efforts to fix the problems in the sector. The way employers in aviation work demands long hours and irregular shifts of workers. But this comes at a cost: overworked and under-rested cabin crew members mean that the well-being and safety of both workers and passengers alike is in jeopardy. Fatigue impairs judgement, attentiveness, and reaction times, all of which make the skies less safe.

But it is simply not true that this problem has no solution. Better rostering practices that consider crew members as human beings and provide sufficient rest periods between flights would make an enormous difference for the better – for everyone.

Another major challenge affecting cabin crew workers is the rise in incidents involving disruptive passengers. Whether it’s excessive alcohol consumption or refusing to comply with safety protocols, these kinds of behaviour make the job of cabin crew harder and less safe – but they also make the journey worse for everyone else. This is why promoting a culture of respect and empathy is vital – and why it’s a job that employers must take up”.

There are a few key words which jump out: essential role; dedication; professionalism; and challenges.  Although admittedly, these words can be ascribed to any profession, and in the air transport field they do apply to the confident captain, the humble chap in overalls prepping up the aircraft, and the glamorous cabin crew,  it is the last category that faces challenges posed by humans. They have to cope with emergencies on board; offer kindness and understanding and ensure safety on board. Often, while suffering verbal abuse they are spat on by drunks, kicked by obstreperous  and disruptive elements and even sexually harassed and propositioned by lotharios. Cyberbullying is a new trend that cabin crew are subjected to.

Beneath the glamourous façade,  this special category of employee (be it male or female) is often a font of  empathy, comfort and solace to passengers in distress. They have been known to hold the hand of a nervous passenger, offer a listening ear, and sit with an aged person who has just seen her spouse breath his last after dinner on board, or hold the hand of a nervous flyer during turbulence or other challenging situations. Many passengers are nervous and fearful of flying and the cabin crew step in to allay their fears. Fear of flying, or aerophobia ( also called aviophobia or aeroneurosis)  which could also be caused by acrophobia (fear of heights) is increasingly becoming a unique human factors issue, has many facets, not all of which apply directly to flying itself. Some of these are: heights; enclosed spaces; crowded conditions; sitting in hot, stale air; being required to wait passively; not understanding the reasons for all the strange actions sounds and sensations occurring around; worrying about the dangers of turbulence; being dependant on an unknown pilot’s or mechanic’s judgment; not feeling in control; and the possibility of terrorism. Passenger hostility is a symptom of a blend of emotions and fear of flying is one of them. Other common symptoms are the threat of losing control, fatigue, and personal and environmental stress.

Fear of flying could lead to self protection—in demanding alcohol, a particular seat or the right to smoke in the cabin. In the early days of flying, the role of the cabin crew was to alleviate passenger concerns by explaining the rules of aerodynamics, cloud formations and meteorology. They also acted as tour guides, particularly when the aircraft flew at low altitudes since large windows offered spectacular views that could alleviate fear. Fear of flying does not always result in air rage or criminal conduct on the part of the person concerned. However, the fact that fear of flying has the potential to make a normally calm and law abiding person turn into an offender is real.

 Elderly or Disabled Passengers are particular beneficiaries of prioritization by flight attendants who ensure their well being by assisting them in the process of boarding including reaching for the overhead bins to store their baggage and assisting them in using toilet facilities, particularly when the cabin lights are dimmed.  Children are entertained with colouring books and toys while parents are supported in feeding their children  which could extend to taking care of infants during flight.

Reports abound with instances of  generosity of the cabin crew in offering extra food and drink  and even enabling upgrades when available. Furthermore, they are usually multilingual and facilitate communication in flight, obviating communication barriers.

My Take

So ,what should be done to look after these flying angels better? A few things come to mind.

Some airlines have taken proactive steps in improving work-life balance; offering reduced duty hours and flexible scheduling as well as additional rest hours. Improved health coverage and enhanced wellness programmes are also desirable to ease the stress of service in flight. Hand in hand with comprehensive training on diversity and inclusion should go a supportive work environment which implements policies calculated to obviate harassment,  discrimination, and other workplace issues. Adequate and efficient processes for  reporting incidents are also important. ,

Above all, considering  the extraordinary nature of this profession, incentives and rewards must be offered that recognize and appreciate the efforts of cabin crew. These can include performance-based bonuses, commendations for exceptional service, and opportunities for career advancement or transfers to preferred routes. There must be fora to look into concerns and complaints of cabin crew with feedback mechanisms that ensure transparency and fairness from an ethical standpoint.

Some of the above-mentioned measures have already been addressed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the trade association of airlines.  IATA has introduced well thought through best practices on cabin crew safety operations covering  various aspects such as emergency procedures, crew resource management, and passenger handling, with the aim of ensuring the safety and well-being of cabin crew and passengers. There are other guidelines on cabin crew fatigue risk management; training; health and wellbeing. IATA also focuses on industry collaboration – a key  factor in facilitating collaboration among airlines, regulators, and other stakeholders to address common challenges and promote industry-wide improvements for cabin crew. Additionally, IATA energetically promotes the development of standards and recommended regulations for international organizations and regulators.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has also made  contributions by collaborating on standardization with its own safety management systems (SMS) programme,   setting aviation health and medical requirements by establishing guidelines and standards for cabin crew health and medical requirements as well as guidance material and tools for airlines and regulators to implement fatigue risk management systems (FRMS) .

These are all on paper and it is left for prudent airlines to implement them.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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