What a flight attendant owns

It is a hell of thing to stand still and yet move forward at the manufactured speeds of yesterday’s progress. I should know. I did it for over seven years. Every morning I put on a blue dress with ornate buttons and matching scarf and I stood at the door of a plane waiting to be the first flight attendant passengers would see as they boarded the vessel that would take them where they wanted to or needed to be.

On an average work day I chimed over 300 good mornings, poured over 250 cups of coffee and personally saw the safe closing of over 150 overhead compartments. I calmed and assisted travelers who had spent hours battling with the complications of travel. I comforted and reassured first time fliers. I lulled businessmen into “one more cup of coffee” as I discouraged their cohorts out of “one more cocktail.” I walked miles in heels. I maneuvered 200 lb carts back and then forth. I navigated aircraft and airports effortlessly, switching gates and destinations at my airline’s whim. I did these things each day.

Whether the day ended in some layover hotel or in my layover bed at my layover home I always ended it the same. I took my uniform off and became human again. I showered the touch of hundreds of passengers off my tired body and I snacked a little before collapsing and doing it all over again the next day. I did this without complaint. In fact, I did it with the satisfaction of someone whose exhaustion comes from work.

The job was not entirely without rest or repose. There were the occasional trips that allotted a few hours of sight-seeing time. I had mini-adventures in cities I had not even thought to visit. I also enjoyed the work.

I remember taking my break on a flight home from Paris while the entire plane seemed to be asleep. It occurred to me as my fingertips warmed in the golden light filtering through the 777 window that the plane was a church offering the subtle silence of 300 passengers sleeping as chorus to the deepest blue of Atlantic beneath us. I thought it was beautiful. I was moving and pressing forward through atmospheric forces; metal on element, momentum on time. The plane was my home.

The heartache I felt after leaving this profession was no surprise to me. I knew that I would miss my co-workers and that I would miss the autonomy the profession afforded me. I knew I would miss the passengers and their ability to absolutely make or break my day. I expected to miss the destinations.

What I did not expect was the absolute sense of concern I would continue to feel for my former co-workers, my fellow union members. I did not expect to feel the all-consuming sense of loyalty to this group of people who, though dear to me, were no longer part of my every day life.

I have watched as my former union, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), has tirelessly fought to bargain a fair contract with United Airlines management and I have sadly seen that management does not even entertain the idea of reason. This is nothing new. This is contract negotiations at its hardest and finest point but still this matter has made me feel sick on more than one occasion.

It was not until I joined a friend on one of her recent work trips that I realized why I, now a “normal person,” am still so invested in the matters of flight attendants.

I see now that it is my profession. They are my planes. They are my passengers. Those coffee pots… those are my coffee pots. Those 200 lb carts… those are my carts. The miles of airport… mine. The day’s wreckage or success… all mine. I own them and I took my ownership of them when I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into them each time I worked a 13 hour duty day shuttling from one delayed airport to the next.

Flight attendants have no office. They have no locker, no place to call their own. They live out of a suitcase that, by FAA regulation, often has to be stowed among passenger bags. Sometimes they don’t see home for days or weeks. The plane becomes home. It becomes church and school and community. The plane is everything they know. They learn the quirks of every seat, every intercom system, every oven. They know every sound and they listen to hear the schedule of knocks, chimes and clocks that signify ascent or eventual descent. They take ownership of this place where time too takes flight.

I know I did. Each Christmas morning telephone call I made from the back of a 737 or 757 galley broke my heart. When it did I reconciled that heartache with warmth toward my passengers and co-workers and an affection for the seats and aisles that proved themselves to somehow be more important than my nieces and nephews; more important than relationships, more important than my sense of self.

They sacrifice and when they have not seemed to sacrifice enough airline crew are asked for even more. When the loss of their pensions did not seem enough, management began to demand a raise in their health insurance costs. When workers survived a 40 per cent decrease in salary, management began to demand a cut in pay for more difficult work positions.

When United realized a 14 hour duty time was not suppressing morale adequately they began to ask for 16 hours. That’s 16 hours straight, beholden to the company, entirely at management’s will with the daunting option of it being extended depending upon various circumstances.

Management takes the money. Management takes the benefits. They even attempt to take a flight attendant’s right to sleep and with it their right to work to their best ability as both a service and a safety professional.

Flight attendants continue to stand at the door of the plane and say “good morning” because they own one thing that management can never have and that is the profession. While airlines cram more seats into already crowded planes flight attendants remain gracious with a frustrated public. While they cut cleaning staff, flight attendants make due tidying with no supplies and no time. While management cuts services, food and drink from more and more flights, flight attendants offer what they are able to, perhaps sometimes merely a consolatory gesture of advocacy. Flight attendants remain an example of professional dignity.
I often feel an overwhelming sense of pride in my former profession. It is one where the workers constantly fight to uphold the quality and dignity of their work. Flight attendants sincerely care about the safety and comfort of passengers. This is not passed down from some company mission statement. The job becomes life. Yet this care is constantly and consistently disregarded by executive decision makers who force their employees to fight battles regarding service, security and everything in between.

It has been a year since I worked a flight. I’ve acclimated to “normal life” as best as can be expected. I still eat in a hurry, usually standing up. I have a compulsion to clear exits and aisles. I can’t remember the last time I got a full night’s rest. I stand in solidarity with the AFA.

Though I am no longer on that plane with people I once knew and loved I watch them with pride from down here, knowing that the sacrifices they make will never be the ones that keep them from flying higher. They will continue, always, to be propelled forward.

Sara Mann lives in her  hometown of Rockford, Ill., and was a flight attendant.

Photo: Midwest Airlines flight attendants attend a candlelight vigil July 8, 2008, in Milwaukee. (Steve Kwaterski/AFL-CIO)