Francesca Street, CNN
British flight attendant Kris 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 considers aviation’s worst crisis yet: the summer of 2022 travel chaos. Major, who chairs the Joint Aircrew Committee of the European Transport Workers Federation, representing European flight attendants and pilots, says flight crews are struggling.
“It’s completely unsustainable work,” Major told CNN Travel.
As travelers around the world return to the air in droves after a pandemic-enforced pause, airlines and airports around the world are scrambling to match supply with demand.
The result is canceled flights left and right, lost luggage and travelers losing faith in the aviation industry as a whole. In Major’s opinion, it’s “absolutely shambolic”.
His words are echoed by flight attendants around the world.
“The understaffing, the delays, the cancellations, the absence of luggage – I think it’s a very difficult situation for everyone,” German Lufthansa flight attendant Daniel Kassa told CNN Travel. Mbuambi.
“There is some kind of breakdown that I think should be avoided,” says Allie Malis, an American flight attendant.
First line in the sky
When aviation came to a halt at the start of the pandemic, most airlines and airports furloughed or laid off many workers on the ground and in the air. Many carriers have operated with reduced staff for most of the past two years.
Today, travel demand is back and the industry is struggling to catch up and rehire. 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 flight attendants’ union UFO.
Crews say that constraint means occasionally operating a flight with minimal onboard personnel, as Kassa Mbuambi describes it, or aircrew sleeping in airports, as Allie Malis recounts.
Malis, who is also the government affairs representative at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, a union representing American Airlines cabin crew, also describes “uncomfortable” situations where crew, delayed on inbound flights, find themselves to sprint through the airport to complete his next job. .
“Sometimes passengers cheer that you’re coming because it means their plane is going to leave, or even they’re upset – they think it’s your fault that the flight was delayed when you can’t work two flights at a time, although I’m sure the airlines wish we could,” she says.
Flight attendants say situations like these, along with unpredictable schedules, take their toll on the mental and physical well-being of crew.
“Sickness levels skyrocketed, fatigue levels skyrocketed, not because [flight attendants are] reject or protest in any way. They just can’t cope — they just can’t cope with the constant change,” says Major, a British stewardess.
When airlines suggest that current problems are due to staff absenteeism, it’s disheartening, Malis says.
“It’s kind of offensive that we get blamed for any kind of labor shortages or operational mismanagement, because the airlines didn’t plan enough,” she adds.
“The flight attendants are at their peak, working the longest days we’ve had, with the shortest overnight rest periods we’ve had and it makes you sick, it leads to exhaustion and fatigue and weakens your immune system.”
Malis says American Airlines recently scrapped an absenteeism 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 while away from home, is a priority.” .
The American Airlines representative said the airline was not aware of any recent reports of crew members sleeping at airports.
“If we think there may be a problem with crew accommodation, everyone is on deck to prevent that from happening,” the rep said.
A Lufthansa spokesman said the aviation industry as a whole “suffers from bottlenecks and staff shortages, which are noticeable especially during peak periods”.
The post-pandemic travel boom was “expected – but not with this intensity”, added the Lufthansa spokesperson. Lufthansa recently canceled a series of summer flights, with the spokesman saying the aim was to reduce same-day cancellations.
As Covid and fatigue-related leave reached 30% among Lufthansa ground staff, the German airline said crew and pilot leave “is significantly lower, in the single digits”. The Lufthansa spokesman said therefore there was no need to operate flights with minimum crew capacity “according to normal crewing patterns”.
State of the industry
Flight attendant contracts allow for variable workdays, so flying has always been a job that involved a degree of unpredictability. But as the industry has grown tense, flight attendants say that uncertainty has intensified.
Major suggests that unpredictable schedules, combined with current wage conditions, are why workers who left the industry during the pandemic are not returning.
“There’s a reason they won’t come back,” he said. “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 starting to work to the bone?”
Major thinks the problem can only be solved if the industry accepts there is a problem – and a problem he sees as inherent to the current mode of operation, not specific to post-Covid flight.
As part of his work for the pan-European aviation union, ETF, Major advocates for an increase in aircrew wages to match the rising cost of living and improve work-life balance private.
Kassa Mbuambi agrees. “We need to offer better conditions,” he says, adding that his Germany-based union is in regular conversation with other cabin crew associations in Europe to find solutions.
He thinks higher wages and more structured working conditions would better reflect the role of flight attendants.
“We are not only there to offer you drinks, but we are also there to guarantee security,” explains Kassa Mbuambi.
At the height of the pandemic, one of the biggest problems facing flight attendants was unruly passengers, with the majority of incidents in the United States apparently related to mask compliance.
American flight attendant Malis says passenger disruption has become less of an issue in the United States since the mask mandate was lifted.
But while mask issues may have ceased in the United States, they are rumbling elsewhere. Kassa Mbuambi and Major suggest that different countries with different rules create ongoing frustration among European travellers. These frustrations can be amplified when travelers also face travel disruptions.
“We currently have a lot of passengers traveling without their luggage,” says Kassa Mbuambi of Lufhansa. “So of course you have a lot of angry passengers.”
Kassa Mbuambi’s appeal to the traveling public is that aviation workers “do what we can do”.
“All staff – regardless of whether it’s ground staff or cabin crew – are doing their best. But if you don’t have enough staff, you can’t solve all the problems.
Major echoes that sentiment and also reminds passengers that aircrew experience travel frustrations on the other side as well. He soon goes on a family vacation and reluctantly sees disruption as inevitable.
Malis points out 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 traffic volumes.”
But, like Major and Kassa Mbuambi, she believes a long-term solution can only come from an overhaul of the current system.
“We as flight attendants are there with our passengers, we are in it with them, we feel their frustrations first hand, if not more, because it has happened to us so many times, since we fly for live,” says Malis.
“We want to do good with our passengers, we can see these poor people who are just trying to get to where they need to go, we can read their stress, we can see their anxiety and so we really want them to get where they want to go, we want to hopefully say goodbye to them with a smile.
A flight attendant’s guide to coping with the chaos of summer travel
Here are some of flight attendant Allie Malis’ top tips for traveling right now:
– Arm yourself with patience: Malis suggests travelers leave their homes expecting travel disruption in one form or another. “I think that would at least put your expectations in the right place,” she says.
– Pack your snacks: Prepare to resupply in case of delay, advises Malis. Along with your snacks of choice, make sure you have an empty water bottle and refill it as soon as you pass through security. If your flight is grounded on the runway for a while, or if you find yourself in a long queue, you will be hydrated and fed. Additionally, some airlines are still not running their pre-Covid inflight catering 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’re going to be able to perform safe beverage service,” says Malis.
– Book early morning flights: Malis suggests earlier flights might be less disrupted, so booking first might be a good cry. “Usually the operation kind of resets in the morning,” she says. And if you’re transferring on a later flight, if you’re at the airport first, there should be more options available. Weather-related delays also tend to happen more in the afternoon and evening, Malis adds.
– Leave a buffer time: Try to avoid tight connections where you can, advises Malis. And if you’re traveling for a big event, like a wedding, try to arrive a day or two early if you can, to give yourself peace of mind.
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Top photo: Display at Frankfurt airport listing canceled flights on July 27, 2022. Credit: Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images
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