In this age of smartphones, we’ve all learned that airline videos tend to go viral. There was the family of five that got kicked off the plane, the crying mom with a baby stroller, and, of course, the screaming doctor violently removed from his seat and dragged down the aisle, bloodied. There was also the man who berated a gate employee so horribly, she was moved to tears. The footage was quickly posted for all to see, and see we did.
Passengers’ ability to complain — loudly, publicly, and instantly, thanks to social media — means on-the-job altercations have become increasingly stressful for airline staff.
So how hard does that make it for flight attendants, whose job it is to keep the peace?
“We hear it a lot — like, ‘Why are your passengers so terrible?’ But that gets old because there’s more of an underlying issue going on,” explained Kara Mulder, the voice behind The Flight Attendant Life, a blog about her eight-year-long experience in the field. “Travel is harder for passengers now. American airports are chaotic and confusing, and if I didn’t understand air travel, all of that would make me a horrible traveler.”
Mulder and other longtime in-flight staff we chatted with say social media has had a definite effect on their jobs in ways that are both bad and good.
“We’re able to see into people’s daily experiences in real time,” said Emirates cabin supervisor Latoya Jones. “The largest impact for us would be information and updates are instantaneous and reaches far more people than before.”
And the social media effect isn’t all bad, especially when a tweet or Facebook post highlighting something positive goes viral.
“The difference now is we can get those customer reviews in real time. We don’t have to wait only for surveys. All it takes is a hashtag or a video upload,” continued Jones, referencing Emirates’s recent viral moment: Baylor University’s 75-member men’s choir breaking into song aboard a July flight for the crew. The impromptu performance caught the attention of national news outlets and racked up 13 million views on Facebook.
And on a flip side, it ups the pressure for the staff’s performance to always be on its A-game.
“We thought every guest on our board is our media,” Ryan Casco, director of training for Hawaiian Airlines said. “No matter what, you’re always being watched [to be] doing the right thing every day,” he said.
Encouraging the in-flight staff to defuse stressful or frustrating aspects of air travel with hospitality can also be empowering for both parties on board.
“I work for a unique airline that actually encourages social media interaction between the company and our guests,” said Celessa Poole, who pens The Everyday Jumpseater and works for a major national carrier (she wished to the airline to remain anonymous). “Recently, during a long ground delay, my crew and I played a game of airline trivia with our guests, giving out chocolate bars to the winners. Snapshots of moments like these remind everyone that we’re all in this together. A little grace and humor go a long way.”
Empathy also helps.
“You need to put everything into perspective, I think,” added Mulder. “When you see a mom with three kids, it’s easy to think [as a flight attendant], ‘Oh man, that’s going to take forever.’ But I think about it from her perspective — what’s it like to travel alone and get through security with all those kids? I’m here to help her. How can I make her day easier? My biggest frustration with some commercial flight attendants is that they think they’re there to enforce safety and nothing else.”
Mulder added, “Giving good customer service helps with safety. Passengers are more likely to listen, respect, and understand you, and be more reasonable and calm in situations. It’s a matter of how you deal with people.”
Poole recalled a recent instance when a customer lashed out at her during a flight. “Although I felt offended and upset by this stranger’s unkind words, I know that this man is not mad at me. He’s mad at the airlines, his boss, his landlord, his mother-in-law, the fact that he slept in and didn’t get a chance to grab a muffin from his favorite bakery before the flight, but he’s not mad at me.”
And staying cool is the key. “To de-escalate a situation, there needs to be a moment where you don’t respond. You continue keeping the smile pasted on your face, you take a moment to collect yourself, you let the other person collect themselves and you let them know that you hear what they’re saying.”
For airlines, the tumultuous age of social media in air travel hasn’t scared off prospective attendants. Last year, Delta saw 146,000 applicants for 1,000 flight attendant spots; Hawaiian Airlines had 800 for 60 spots. And while the selection process is grueling, it’s the intensive training where workplace bonds are formed.
“And they become the most bonded group,” said David Janke, a Delta training manager. “Almost like sisters and brothers and mom and dad, they walk out like a family. They don’t let one another fail.”
Casco agreed on the sentiment. “We work with each other, but it’s literally like a family. We try to instill that into employees. Because at the end of the day, if you treat a guest poorly, or intentionally try to ruin someone’s experience, you have to face the family. And nobody wants to do that.”
And it’s this culture, camaraderie, and unexpected unique nature of the job that seem to add to the retention of in-flight staff.
“That’s the hardest part,” Mulder said. “Even when you want to leave, you know you’ll never find something to replace what you have. You usually can’t. It’s this odd lifestyle, and you fall in love with it. Even the bad parts.”