Francesca Street, CNN
British flight attendant Chris Major has worked in aviation for more than two decades. He has seen the industry suffer and recover from 9/11, SARS and foot and mouth disease.
Now, Major is on the front lines of what he thinks is the worst aviation crisis yet: the 2022 summer of travel chaos. Major, who serves as chairman of the European Transport Workers’ Federation’s Joint Aircrew Committee, representing European flight attendants and pilots, says flight crew are struggling.
“It’s completely unsustainable as a job,” Major tells CNN Travel.
As global travelers return to the skies in droves after a pandemic-enforced hiatus, airlines and airports around the world are scrambling to match demand.
The result is flight cancellations left and center, misplaced luggage, and travelers losing faith in the aviation industry as a whole. In Major’s view, it is “absolutely shambolic”.
His words have been echoed by flight attendants across the globe.
“The lack of staff, the delays, the cancellations, no luggage — I think it’s a very difficult situation for everyone,” Germany-based Lufthansa flight attendant Daniel Kassa Mbuambi tells CNN Travel.
“There’s some kind of accident going on that I believe should be prevented,” said American flight attendant Allie Malis.
The first line in the sky
When aviation ground to a halt in the early days of the pandemic, most airlines and airports either laid off or laid off many ground and air workers. Many carriers operated a skeleton staff for the better part of the past two years.
Now, travel demand is back and the industry is scrambling to catch up and rebuild. For flight attendants still on the books, it’s a “very difficult situation,” says Lufthansa’s Kassa Mbuambi, who is also president of the German union of flight attendants UFO.
The crew says this strain means occasionally flying with minimal staff on board, as Kassa Mbuambi describes, or aircrew sleeping in airports, as Allie Malis points out.
Malis, who is also the government affairs representative for the Professional Flight Students Association, a union representing American Airlines flight crew, also describes “uncomfortable” situations where crew, delayed on incoming flights, find themselves running across the airport to do their next job. .
“Sometimes passengers cheer that you’re arriving because it means their plane is going, or even that they’re upset – they think it’s your fault the flight is delayed when you can’t work two flights at once. Although I’m sure the airlines wish we could,” she says.
Flight attendants say situations like these, along with unpredictable schedules, wreak havoc on the crew’s mental and physical well-being.
“Sickness levels have gone through the roof, fatigue levels have gone through the roof, not because [flight attendants are] refuse or are protesting in any way. They just can’t cope – they just can’t cope with constant change,” says British flight attendant Major.
When airlines suggest that current problems are due to staff shortages, it’s disheartening, says Malis.
“It’s kind of insulting that we’re being blamed for any kind of manpower shortage or operational mismanagement because airlines have failed to plan properly,” she adds.
Flight attendants are maxed out, working the longest days we’ve had, with the shortest periods of rest at night we’ve had, and that makes you sick, which leads to exhaustion and fatigue and weakens your immune system.
Malis says American Airlines recently removed an absence policy that exposed crew members to disciplinary action if they took Covid-related leave. An airline spokesperson did not comment on the change to CNN, but said “taking care of our crew members at all times, including when they are away from home, is a priority.”
An American Airlines representative said the airline was not aware of any recent reports of crew members sleeping in airports.
“If we believe there might be a problem with a crew accommodation, it’s all hands on deck to prevent that from happening,” the representative said.
A Lufthansa spokesman said the aviation industry as a whole “is suffering from bottlenecks and staff shortages, particularly evident during peak periods”.
The post-pandemic travel boom was “expected – but not at this intensity,” the Lufthansa spokesman added. Lufthansa recently canceled a number of summer flights, with the spokesperson stating that the aim was to reduce daytime cancellations.
While time off related to Covid and fatigue has reached 30% among Lufthansa’s ground staff, the German airline said crew and pilot time off “is significantly lower, in the single digits”. The Lufthansa spokesman said that, as a result, operating flights with minimum crew capacity was not necessary “in normal crew patterns”.
The state of the industry
Flight attendant contracts allow for variable work days, so flying has always been a job that has come with a degree of unpredictability. But as the industry expands, flight attendants say that uncertainty has increased.
Major suggests unpredictable hours, combined with current wage conditions, is why workers who left the industry during the pandemic aren’t coming back.
“There’s a reason they won’t come back,” he says. “The industry has created its own problem.”
Malis echoes this: “Why would anyone want to apply to be a flight attendant or any other airline employee when we’re working ourselves to the bone?”
Major thinks the issue can only be resolved by the industry admitting it has a problem – and a problem he sees as inherent to the current way of operating, not specific to post-Covid flying.
Through his work for the pan-European aviation union ETF, Major is advocating for increased aircrew pay to match the rising cost of living and improved work-life balance.
Kassa Mbuambi agrees. “We need to secure better conditions,” he says, adding that his Germany-based union is in regular talks with other cabin crew associations in Europe to work through solutions.
He feels that higher wages and more structured working conditions would better reflect the role of flight attendant.
“We’re not just there to offer you some drinks, we’re also there to ensure safety,” says Kassa Mbuambi.
Relations with passengers
At the height of the pandemic, one of the biggest problems facing aircrew was unruly passengers, with most incidents in the US reported to be related to mask compliance.
American flight attendant Malis says passenger disruption has become less of a problem in the US since the mask mandate was lifted.
But while the mask-related issues may have subsided in the US, they are raging elsewhere. Kassa Mbuambi and Major suggest that different countries having different rules create constant frustration among European travelers. These frustrations can be magnified when travelers are also facing travel disruptions.
“Currently we have many passengers traveling without their bags,” says Lufhansa’s Kassa Mbuambi. “So of course, you have a lot of angry passengers.”
Kassa Mbuambi’s plea to the traveling public is that aviation workers are “doing what we can do”.
“All the staff – it doesn’t matter if they’re ground staff or cabin crew – they do the best they can. But if you don’t have enough staff, then you can’t solve every problem.”
Major echoes this sentiment and also reminds passengers that aircrew experience travel frustrations on the other side as well. He’s going on a family vacation soon and looks forward to the breakup as inevitable.
Malis notes that the summer vacation season always stretches the system, suggesting that this fall could “be a great opportunity to reset, to make sure our systems are working properly to handle high volumes of traffic”.
But, like Major and Kassa Mbuambi, she thinks a long-term solution can only come from revamping the current system.
“We, as flight attendants, are there with our passengers, we are with them, we feel their frustrations first hand, if not more, because it has happened to us so often, since we fly for a living. “, says Malis.
“We want to do well by our passengers, we can see these poor people who are just trying to get where they need to go, we can read their stress, we can see their anxiety and so we we really want them to get where they want to go, we want to say goodbye with a smile.”
A flight attendant’s guide to dealing with the chaos of summer travel
Here are some of flight attendant Allie Malis’ top tips for traveling now:
– Pack your patience: Malis suggests that travelers should leave home expecting some form of travel disruption. “I think it would at least set your expectations in the right place,” she says.
– Pack your own food: Come prepared to feed yourself for any delays, advises Malis. Along with your snacks of choice, make sure you have an empty water bottle and fill it up as soon as you’re through security. If your flight is stuck on the tarmac for a long time, or if you find yourself in a long line, you’ll be hydrated and nourished. Plus, some airlines still aren’t rolling out their pre-Covid onboard food service, and even if they are, there could be service disruptions: “If the weather is bad, if it’s really bumpy, there’s no guarantee that we” will be able to safely carry out a beverage service,” explains Malis.
– Book early morning flights: Malis suggests that earlier flights may be less interrupted, so booking first may be a good call. “Usually the surgery is kind of reset in the morning,” she says. And if you’re transferring to a later flight, if you’re at the airport first thing, there should be more options available. Weather-related delays also tend to occur more in the afternoon and evening, Malis adds.
– Time to leave the buffer: Try to avoid close relationships where you can, advises Malis. And if you’re traveling for an important event, such as a wedding, try to fly a day or two in advance if you can, to give yourself peace of mind.
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Main photo: An airport display at Frankfurt Airport listing canceled flights on July 27, 2022. Credit: Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images