When Essence Griffin started working as a flight attendant in 2022 she was thrilled.
Griffin was in her early 20s and desperate to see the world. The years stuck at home during the pandemic had “lit a fire” inside her.
At first, Griffin’s job as a flight attendant for a US airline felt like the perfect opportunity. But after just over a year of flying, she decided to take a step back.
“I’m taking a break now,” she says. “I got burned out.”
Griffin’s not alone. Working as a flight attendant might sound like a dream job – but in a post-pandemic aviation landscape defined by delays, lost luggage, staffing issues and disruptive passengers, the dream is souring for some.
The legacy of the pandemic
2020 saw many aviation workers furloughed, while those still working risked falling ill. Then, as the pandemic waned and airplanes returned to the skies, airlines struggled to restaff quickly enough to match demand.
When aviation returned, disruptive passengers seemed more prevalent than ever – with the then-obligatory wearing of face masks often the inciting factor. Since 2021, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported a “rapid growth” in “incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior.”
US flight attendant Rich Henderson, who’s been flying for a decade, says during the pandemic, “the whole thing shifted, the whole environment and the energy in the environment shifted.”
In Henderson’s opinion, it’s all yet to shift back – staffing, scheduling and long days remain an issue, while disruptive passenger incidents are a continuing concern.
These issues are not specific to the US, according to Dutch flight attendant Juliana Oliveira.
Flight attendants don’t want delays any more than passengers, adds Oliveira, suggesting there is a misconception that crew are paid during long waits on the ground.
“We only get paid from the turning on of the engine until turning off,” she says. There are certain airlines that are exceptions to this rule, but this is the general policy.
The FAA stipulates that flight attendants in the US are supposed to clock off after 14 hours. But Henderson says “once the door of the aircraft is closed, we’re powerless, so we can go illegal while we’re in the middle of working a sequence if we’re still on the plane.”
Oliveira says flight attendants in Europe have similar limitations on working hours under the European Aviation Security Agency (EASA) but “we can go further than 14 hours under special conditions.”
“We do not get extra pay for extra hours,” she says.
When Covid happened, all of the fun parts of being a flight attendant, all of the satisfying, exciting parts of being a flight attendant were stripped from the job
Rich Henderson, flight attendant
Extra long days make dealing with disruptive passengers all the more draining. Henderson recalls a “day that clocked in at 17 hours and one minute” which ended with a hostile passenger interaction
“I had a passenger throw a cup at me, tell me I was worthless and tell me that I was horrible at my job,” says Henderson. “I felt so dehumanized.”
Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggests an “increasing frequency and severity” of disruptive passenger incidents: a June 2023 IATA report states there was one unruly incident reported for every 568 flights in 2022, up from one per 835 flights in 2021.
The problem’s so omnipresent there’s a whole conference dedicated to the issue – Dispax World, the international conference on unruly airline passenger management and restraint, set to take place in October 2023 in Prague in the Czech Republic.
The conference will gather legal experts, academics, officials and flight attendants to discuss what they call “the scourge of unruly passenger behavior.”
IATA data suggests the most common issue among disruptive passengers is “non-compliance.” With mask-wearing no longer compulsory, it’s passengers smoking, failing to fasten seatbelts when instructed and consuming their own alcohol on board the aircraft that are among the top issues.
Henderson suggests there was an onboard passenger behavioral shift in 2020 that’s only continued to spiral in the years since.
“I think during Covid, and that sort of era, people were really emboldened to speak up when they felt like something was wrong or unjust – whether or not it actually was is debatable – but people just felt more empowered to push back on rules,” he says.
“I think we’re still in a time period where people just feel they can get away with whatever they want.”
Mental health impact
The net effect of these issues is “morale is down,” as US flight attendant Nastassja Lewis puts it.
Lewis is the founder of flight attendant mental health nonprofit thAIR