The fury has died down, but the rash of viral confrontations on airplanes is still very much on flight attendants’ minds. They are demoralized and anxious, afraid of becoming the villain in a cellphone video that spreads across the globe — creating a situation some say could result in safety lapses on planes.
Several flight attendants who spoke to TIME said they have seen colleagues ignore unbuckled belts, incorrectly placed bags and similar violations of federal safety rules in order to avoid sparking confrontations with passengers. “A lot of flight attendants feel uncomfortable performing essential job functions and responsibilities because one angry person can change our employment status,” said Ben, a flight attendant working for a major U.S. airline, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used.
The recent tensions between fliers and crew arose in April, when a video posted online showed a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight after refusing to give up his seat. Two weeks later, an American Airlines flight attendant was suspended after yanking a stroller from a mother, leading to a heated argument that was caught on camera. And just last month, a family was kicked off a JetBlue flight after a dispute with a flight attendant over where to store a birthday cake.
While it’s still relatively rare for trouble to brew aboard flights, smartphone videos posted to social media make the incidents seem more frequent, creating friction in the cabin at a moment when confrontations can quickly spiral into viral moments. Since the United episode, in which passenger David Dao was left bloodied and with a concussion after being forced to give up his seat, flight attendants said they started noticing an attitude shift among passengers.
“Just about every other flight, I would have a passenger make a reference to the United Airways incident, and be like, ‘Well, you guys are always saying, please fasten your seatbelt, put up your tray tables, pull your seat back forward. What if I don’t? Are you going to drag me off the plane like they did on United?'” said Jenny, a flight attendant for nearly 20 years, who declined to give her last name.
If flight attendants don’t have the respect of their passengers, some experts say there could be far more serious problems than an unbuckled seatbelt. Passengers who don’t obey rules could mean chaos in a true emergency, said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 members at 20 airlines.
“If we have not established that authority, and passengers are not listening to flight attendants, it can be catastrophic,” Nelson said. “It can be the demise of an entire airplane.”
Not all agree with such dire predictions. John Cox, a retired U.S. Airways captain who now runs aviation safety consulting firm Safety Operating Systems, acknowledged that flight attendants are under intense pressure, but he does not believe that poses a safety threat. “There’s always pandemonium during a life-threatening evacuation,” Cox said. “But history has shown us that when you stress people to that level, they turn to who they believe is the expert on scene. Every time, it’s the flight attendant.”
The recent incidents have drawn new attention to customer complaints about airlines. Passengers filed 1,909 complaints with the Department of Transportation in April, a 70% bump year-over-year and a 69% increase from March. The gripes mostly involved flight cancellations and delays, lost baggage and ticketing issues. Airlines have also been criticized lately for finding clever ways to raise prices, experimenting with reduced legroom and struggling with massive delays caused by computer outages.
After the United incident, several major airlines reviewed their policies and made changes. United instituted a new rule that employees could not revoke a passenger’s seat after he or she had already boarded, according to a news release the airline issued in late April. United also pledged to limit its use of law enforcement in future cases of disputes with passengers.
When asked about the safety concerns flight attendants have raised in the wake of the incidents, United and JetBlue did not respond to requests for comment. American referred to a memo its CEO Doug Parker sent to employees in late May. In the note, Parker says the “dedication and commitment to customer service for everyone in our industry has recently been called into question.” “We now live in a world where all eyes (and video cameras) are on us,” he wrote, later adding that the airline would offer web-based training in de-escalating conflicts.
Delta provided a statement through a flight attendant named Mathew Palmer, who said the company’s “leaders are working directly with us to find solutions and set them in place quickly.” “The social media effect has certainly had an impact on our jobs, but my colleagues and I are safety professionals and we remain focused on working with our customers to ensure safety is taken seriously,” the statement said. “Not only do the people on the ground have our backs, but we have the tools at our fingertips to get ahead of a customer issue and make it right, even at 30,000 feet.”
The Federal Aviation Administration did not directly respond to the potential safety risks raised by flight attendants. “A flight attendant’s primary responsibility is aviation safety,” the FAA said in a statement. “Flight attendants provide passengers with a safety briefing, remind them to comply with FAA safety regulations, and provide instructions during an emergency. Our nation’s flight attendants are well-trained professionals who are required to comply with the FAA’s regulations.”
This is not the first time tensions have arisen between between flight attendants and crew. There were similar levels of “air rage” in the late 1990s, as America’s skies saw a spike in unruly passengers confronting or attacking airline personnel. At the time, the solution involved harsher penalties for interfering with crewmembers. Now, flight attendants say airlines need to do a better job of teaching passengers that attendants’ primary duty is safety, not customer service. “We don’t go to training every year to learn how to serve Cokes,” said Steven, also a longtime flight attendant with a major U.S. airline. Others say it’s a matter of catching problems well before takeoff.
“We’re paying more attention to the customers coming on board, paying more attention to the attitudes that are coming on board,” Ben said. “And if there’s any negativity, we address it before the door closes.”
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