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The Air Up There Podcast

“Get vaxed, wear a mask, and come fly with us.”

Season 2, Episode 9
Published: Friday, April 23, 2021

Flight attendants serve a critical safety function in the cabin (no, they aren't just there to hand out snacks). But after years of decline, incidents of unruly passengers spiked in 2018 and from 2020–2021, they've hit record numbers — largely because passengers fail to listen to flight attendant directions about the new mask policy. In this episode we spoke with Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, about what travel has been like during the COVID-19 pandemic and why she's proud to be a flight attendant.

Read our blog post about being a good airline passenger.

“Get vaxed, wear a mask, and come fly with us.”

“Get vaxed, wear a mask, and come fly with us.”

Transcript

Dominique Gebru:
Welcome to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation and aerospace. I'm Dominique Gebru.

Allen Kenitzer:
And, I'm Allen Kenitzer. There's an old Nat King Cole song that I love. The chorus goes straighten up and fly right. And this most certainly applies today to how we all should act while flying as an airline passenger.

Dominique Gebru:
Allen, we all know that life as an airline passenger in the 21st century can be stressful. Health concerns, new regulations, unruly fellow passengers, and flight delays can be nerve wracking for any traveler. But remember, that the pilots and flight attendants are there to get you to your destination safely, and everything they do is for your benefit. In fact, did you know that there are federal regulations that actually prohibit passengers from interfering with crew members? Yeah, that's right. Violating these regulations can result in hefty fines, and we mean hefty.

Allen Kenitzer:
All excellent points, Dominique. After years of decline, incidents of unruly passengers unfortunately spiked in 2018. And from 2020–21, they've hit record numbers, largely because passengers failed to listen to flight attendants' directions about the new mask policy. In January 2021, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order directing a zero-tolerance policy against unruly airline passengers in the wake of recent troubling incidents.

Steve Dickson:
Recently, we've seen a disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior. These incidents have stem both from passengers refusals to wear masks, and from recent violence of the U.S. Capitol, this dangerous behavior can distract, disrupt, and threaten crew members' safety functions. And as a former airline captain, it's extremely concerning to me. And, I know it's equally concerning to the airline cockpit and cabin crews, whose primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of all passengers.

Steve Dickson:
Now historically, we have addressed unruly passenger incidents using a variety of methods, ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties. But, these recent events show that a change in our policy is necessary. So this week, I signed an order directing FAA safety inspectors and attorneys to pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members. We will not address these cases through warnings or counseling.

Dominique Gebru:
Thanks Administrator Dickson. Allen, that policy was initially scheduled to expire on March 30, 2021, but the administrator extended the order for as long as current mask policies by the U.S. CDC and TSA remain in effect for airline passengers. Administrator Dickson made it clear that the FAA is committed to ensuring that commercial airline passengers comply with these regulations. He added that the agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members. And, that unruly passengers could face civil penalties of up to $35,000.

Allen Kenitzer:
And, no one wants that, Dominique. As we navigate through the airspace together, it's important to remember some basic rules of airline passenger travel. The first rule is something we've always called common courtesy. Once we're aboard the aircraft, the way we behave impacts those around us. As we stated earlier, the flight crew is there to get you to your destination and back safely, and everything they do is for your benefit.

Dominique Gebru:
Our colleague, Alison Duquette recently sat down with Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Sara talked about how flight attendants are keeping passengers safe every day.

Alison Duquette:
Well, thanks for joining me, Sara, I'm very interested in getting your behind-the-scenes insights that you're hearing from your members about how the pandemic has affected air travel. So let's get right to the point, what's most important to us, and I think probably for you and your members, is the safety of passengers and the flight attendants and the crew. So, what have been the biggest challenges that your members are seeing on flights today?

Sara Nelson:
Well, it's been a little bit of a crazy year because we, of course, as aviation's first responders flying all over the world were some of the first workers to come in contact with coronavirus and be dealing with it. And so a year ago, in January of 2020, we were already talking with the airlines about following our communicable disease checklist, and make sure that we're getting good information to crews, and having proper PPE, and following all the guidelines that we would normally follow to try to stop the spread of a communicable disease at transportation store.

Sara Nelson:
So, only about a month later, we were dealing with a worldwide pandemic. So, it was an interesting time because air travel fell off by 97%. And all of a sudden, our airports were ghost towns. And a lot of people, this seems like a blip on the radar now, but it was being reported everywhere. Flights taking off with one passenger on board, walking the airports, and none of the concessions are open. And, TSA is still there, but they're counting a handful of passengers each day. And today, when demand is increasing, we are going to be here to be able to meet that demand of the traveling public, but at the time, no one was traveling and what we needed to do, was to keep members safe and also work with our airlines on very liberal sick leave policies. I mean, if someone thinks that they are sick, maybe has come in contact with coronavirus, we worked with our airlines to make it very clear to workers, stay home, you'll be covered, you'll be paid.

Sara Nelson:
There were a lot of issues to take on. And, as we learned more about the virus and we got the federal funding in place, we got some of that financial support, so that the industry didn't just collapse altogether, we were able to start addressing the safety issues. And I have to say the financial support also, as the FAA knows, was very important to continuing the critical infrastructure that our country counts on with air travel. Most people don't think about it, but their communities can't survive if they don't have commercial air traffic coming into their communities, carrying the U.S. mail, that carries prescription drugs to four million people a day. We carried ventilators from overseas to help in our hospitals. We carried other protective equipment that we wouldn't have had otherwise. we carried critical personnel into these communities to be able to help out. And, here's a story that I think about that is not just one story, but it's emblematic of why air travel is so critical.

Sara Nelson:
We had a grandmother who flew across the country to take care of her grandchildren because the two parents were ER doctors, and they were spending more time addressing the needs in that community. If she hadn't been able to travel, she wouldn't have been able to support that family, so that those critical health care professionals could go to work. Those are all the kinds of things that are critical. And, I think about members of Congress too, frankly, who were going to do their jobs. There were members of Congress who said, Let's make sure that we have support for all of our communities, because I'm a member of Congress who needs to go home and find out what my constituents need, but I need to go back to Washington in order to make sure that they have it. And, I can't even fly into an airport that's closer than 10 hours away from where I live.

Sara Nelson:
There was a lot of stress and strain on people during that time. And, we had to work with the airlines very closely to make sure that the mask policies were being put in place. We worked with them, and supported getting the HEPA filtration on the airplanes where we could, and that we've never seen our airplanes so clean. We're very happy about the sanitation that's going on between flights. But also, we worked with the FAA on having waivers so that we could have one flight attendant sit on a jumpseat, another in a passenger seat, so we could actually have social distancing. We worked on waivers with our safety demonstration, so that we weren't putting those masks up to our face that maybe someone else was using in another safety demonstration. And, we worked through that in ways that continued to provide the basic needs for instructions, for passengers to travel safely, and for us to be able to transport people safely, but in a way that was also mitigating the risk. And, we couldn't have done that without interfacing with the FAA the way we have over the last year.

Alison Duquette:
So, two things you mentioned, you referred to flight attendants as first responders and you were able to keep your certification up. And, I think that for a lot of our listeners, they may not really think of flight attendants as first responders. And for the FAA, we think of you as safety professionals because you are. And, flight attendants are really there to help you in many ways, but they are there, potentially to save your life in an aviation emergency. You have the training to do it. I thought maybe if you could share with the public, the reason it is so important not to interfere with the duties of a flight attendant? There is a very inherent safety function in what you do, and the training behind what you do at each day you get on an airplane.

Sara Nelson:
We are aviation's first responders. There's no one else who can come to the scene. If we happen to have a passenger on-board who is trained medically or trained in emergency response, we will, of course, call for their assistance and get them to help. But, we can't count on that. So, there's a minimum number of flight attendants on board to make sure that if there is an emergency, and an emergency evacuation specifically, that we have flight attendants at the exits who can direct people off the plane, and even recognize when an exit is unusable. We're trained in immediate response. And when a critical incident happens, a lot of people go into shock mode. And, if you're not trained to have that immediate response, there's no telling how you're actually going to react. So, of course, that is fundamentally why we're there.

Sara Nelson:
But we also, when we're up in the air, it's like moving around a mini city. And, there's people of all ages from all kinds of backgrounds. Sometimes people are flying for medical needs, they're going to get medical treatment somewhere. And so, we have to deal with medical emergencies. We revive people from heart attacks. We were a part of advocating to have the defibrillators on board, and be trained in that way. So, we're trained in CPR and to use those defibrillators. We're trained to follow medical personnel instructions. We have flight attendants who have delivered babies on board and we also, since 9/11, are aviation's last line of defense. So, we also are on the lookout for any security disruptions. So, when people are interfering with our duties and our ability to keep a watch over the cabin, you're potentially putting someone else's life at risk, or putting the lives of everyone on board at risk.

Sara Nelson:
Now, I can also argue that having a Coke on board, having something to eat can also be a safety issue. Because I have been the flight attendant who, on a short flight, had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my bag, and it was the only reason we revived someone from an episode, as a diabetic.

Sara Nelson:
And finally, I would just say that we are also the eyes and ears in the cabin. And, there is a frontier flight attendant who is being hailed as a hero this year, because she recognized before we took off that there was ice that was forming on the wings, after a de-icing that was not properly done. And, if it had not been for her vigilance and alerting the flight deck, that may have been a catastrophic incident. So, flight attendants are really on the lookout for any potential emergency situation, avoiding those risks. And, we're really that last line of defense on all of those things. And, interfering with those duties can mean that other people get hurt.

Alison Duquette:
FAA Administrator Dickson, recently stated that, He has a zero tolerance policy for people who behave badly on airplanes. And, the fine is significant. It's up to $35,000 and possible jail time.

Sara Nelson:
This past year has been incredibly difficult, because the public was taught to believe that wearing masks was a political decision, rather than a public health necessity. And so, when Administrator Dickson came out with very clear instructions that interfering with crew members instructions to wear those masks or anything else, was going to be treated with a zero tolerance policy, of course, no one's ever supposed to do that. But, having that kind of backing coming from the FAA administrator, and setting a clear tone with the traveling public that they have to take this seriously, made all the difference.

Sara Nelson:
Now, we have seen as Administrator Dickson noted, no decrease in the number of those incidents on board. However, we have seen an increase in the number of passengers. So per capita, you could say those incidents have come down. What I will say though, is that the crews applauded that big time. And, it gave them the kind of backing that allows them to properly do their jobs. When we're not sure whether or not the federal government has our backs, it makes it a lot harder to be very clear with people about what the rules are. And, this gave flight attendants on the front lines the kind of backing that they need to be really clear with people. And that is important, because we've not only had confrontations with people who have not wanted to wear the mask, or follow those policies that were originally set by the airlines and are now a federal mandate, but we've had other passengers reacting to them.

Sara Nelson:
And what it does in that small space, is it increases the likelihood of conflict and the likelihood of physical contact where everyone can get hurt. So, those very clear instructions from the administrator were applauded by flight attendants all across the industry. It made it easier for us to do our jobs. And, I would argue that the circumstances and the events of those incidents have gone down, because we have so many more people flying and the events have stayed at the same level. I think that, that will continue to go down the more this is reported on. And, the journalists are reporting on the fines and consequences that people are facing because they failed to comply. Being a flight attendant, it's an extraordinary job.

Sara Nelson:
I was talking with a group of flight attendants, who we were negotiating for a few years ago. At the time, I said, What make you come to work here? And I mean, they were accomplished people. They had their college degrees and they could speak other languages. And they said, In the other jobs that we've done, we've been in places where people have just disrespected us and treated us as though we don't mean anything or have any value. And, I come here and I've got these stripes on my uniform, and when people come on board, they respect me as a leader and they respect what I do. And, we have worked really hard to build up the flight attendant career and have this role be taken very seriously. And, I do think that people look to us as leaders. And, I think that there's a real pride that people carry with that. Beyond that, of course, we always joke the reason we do it is because we love people and we love to travel.

Sara Nelson:
I mean, the truth is that connecting people from different backgrounds and welcoming people onto a flight, and having this experience with a diverse group of people getting from point A to point B, that's no small thing. There's some magic in that. And, there's something really beautiful about it too, connecting humanity in that way. And so, I think people really enjoy that. And, I also know that for flight attendants, we can fly to almost every corner of the earth when some people can only dream of passing borders. And so, it can be a very rewarding career, but people who do it, and stick with it, and sort of learn that new unique way of life tend to really love it and tend to want to stick with it. And, even if they don't stay as a flight attendant, they may decide to be a mechanic, or be a customer service agent, or become a pilot, or do something else in aviation. But, people who get into this career usually really love it and love aviation.

Alison Duquette:
Okay. Well, thanks Sara for your time. And, I think the FAA would agree your travel is special. It connects people. And so, if you're getting ready to travel anytime soon and you're listening, we hope you will treat the flight attendants with respect, we really appreciate it.

Sara Nelson:
The only thing I would say in this moment to the public, in a more soundbitey way is, get vaxed, wear a mask, and come fly with us.

Alison Duquette:
Love it.

Sara Nelson:
There you go.

Dominique Gebru:
Thanks. Alison and Sara. When Administrator Dickson announced the new policy, he ended it by saying, Flying is the safest mode of transportation, which is true. And he also said, He signed that order to keep it that way.

Allen Kenitzer:
And, that's our show for today. The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you like today's episode, remember to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media. We're @FAA on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, and @FAANews on Twitter and YouTube.

Dominique Gebru:
Thanks for listening.