Throughout the pandemic, essential workers have borne the brunt of the public’s frustrations and fears about COVID. Flight attendants are rarely mentioned alongside restaurant employees or nurses and doctors, but they’ve experienced some of the worst treatment, with 85% of airline staff reporting dealing with an unruly customer in 2021, per a July survey by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. These incidents, 17% of which escalated to a physical confrontation, often affect women, who make up nearly three-quarters of all cabin crew. Bustle spoke to Kate*, 33, a flight attendant based on the West Coast, about just some of what she’s dealt with during the pandemic.
When things shut down, I kept flying because I didn’t want to sit in my apartment alone. But we had an issue with mask compliance on more than half the flights we worked throughout the pandemic. We’d kick someone off the plane at least once every three days. I firmly believe you should be wearing a mask if you’re traveling, especially before there was a vaccine, but I didn’t think I’d have to police that. I never applied for that job. Every time, the best-case scenario is that they will roll their eyes and throw on their face coverings. The worst-case scenario is that they’re completely defiant and won’t do it.
One customer was particularly ridiculous. This gentleman wasn’t wearing a mask at all, and he didn’t even acknowledge or look at me when I approached him. He was eating, and every time I asked him to put his mask on, he’d just put food in his mouth. Our policy is to remind someone only three times, but we did it four times with this guy. Finally, I called somebody to get him pulled off the plane before we took off. His demeanor changed completely. He started crying and yelling and calling me a b*tch. That one stuck out because it showed how much energy some people put into not wearing a face covering and how manipulative they can be to avoid it.
“On the plane, I dissociate a little bit.”
Over Labor Day weekend, which was super busy as it’d been all summer, I was flying in and out of Florida. One guy kept falling asleep with his mask around his neck and his mouth wide open. We’d ask him to put it on, and I’d turn around not even a half second later and it’d be back down again. He’d say it didn’t fit his face, so I’d give him one issued by our airline. The next thing you know, he’d poked holes in it! I’m like, what a clown! We kicked him off on the connecting flight, and he’s now banned from flying with our airline.
It’s scary because a lot of the time the offenders are bigger men and a lot of the flight attendants are women or smaller guys. Certain kinds of men get mad on the plane and feel like they can intimidate you into getting their way. People touch us more because of the masks — they don’t think I can hear them with it on, so they’ll tap me to get my attention, and it puts me on edge. I even got pushed yesterday by someone who wanted me to notice them. It’s gotten to the point where I have a knot in my stomach every time I leave for the airport — I know it’s not going to be a good day. It’s rarely a good day anymore; it’s usually passable or tiring and somewhat bad.
I don’t really have a way to handle it. I would meditate and sage myself, but now I think I’m going to have to go on medication. I’m also working more than I normally would, which compounds the issues. There’s not a lot you can do. On the plane, I dissociate a little bit. At the beginning of my career, someone told me, “When you’re in a difficult situation on the plane, pretend it’s happening to someone else.” That sometimes works.
As a flight attendant, our job is to make people happy. We’re a social group of people that likes to make others feel comfortable. So to have a majority of our interactions at work be so hostile and angry takes a toll on you pretty quickly. When I fly other airlines, I bring little individual bath salts and chocolates for their flight attendants. I feel so bad knowing what they’re going through.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.