Patti Lutz, Brett Nevarez
Carlos Osorio  /  AP file
Northwest Airlines Corp. flight attendant Patti Lutz, a 20-year veteran, and Southwest Airlines flight attendant Brett Nevarez, stand outside the Northwest Airlines terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich., Tuesday, June 6, in an informational picket about wage cuts.
By Travel columnist
updated 9/6/2006 8:02:02 PM ET 2006-09-07T00:02:02

Airline flight attendants are the country’s unsung heroes in our current “War on Terrorism.” Recent events demonstrate that this is true now more than ever. Every time a plane takes off, every time a traveler stands up and walks toward the cockpit, and every time a passenger ducks behind his seat to dig through carry-on luggage, flight attendants go on high alert.

Five years ago, immediately after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the media was filled with stories about “real heroes” — rescuers, police and firefighters who risked their lives to save workers in those buildings.

Those brave emergency workers were racing up stairs into harm’s way while the office workers were filing down the stairs away from danger as quickly as possible. The firefighters, EMTs and police deserve every accolade they receive.

Now, let’s think about something. Firefighters and police officers are trained for danger. When they arrive at the scene of an incident, they can see the broad outlines of what they are facing. They are skilled in protecting us. They do it every day.

But what about flight attendants?

Flight attendants face potential danger every time they go to work, too. Where once their main purpose was to see to in-flight comforts and provide knowledgeable assistance in case of an emergency landing, their new job is much more nerve-racking. Worse, it is almost always taken for granted.

What once was an airborne world of giddy tourists and grumpy businessmen is now a war zone. Trouble, perhaps deadly trouble, could break out in the cabin at any time. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But someday.

New terrorist dangers are unknown. So unknown, in fact, that the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration and other government organizations still cannot predict where, when or how an attack will take place. It was only about a month ago that the new threat of liquid explosives that can be mixed aboard aircraft surfaced as the latest suicide-bombing technique.

While passengers grumble about the inconvenience of waiting in long security lines, taking off our shoes, putting liquids in checked baggage and having our luggage and bodies probed, most of us have decided to fly again, at least to places that are important to us. We have that choice. Flight attendants don’t. If they want to continue being paid, they have to go to work.

The same is true of pilots, of course. But pilots are now barricaded inside their cockpits. Some have been given stun guns and others have been trained to carry firearms. But what are flight attendants getting?

Not much. Before they lock themselves in the cockpit, captains now basically tell the flight attendants that they will have to fend for themselves. They don’t have much choice; most everyone agrees that the cockpit door must stay locked.

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Yes, some airlines now train flight attendants in the basics of self-defense: skills like coordinating with other flight attendants, maintaining distance, assuming a protective body position and dealing with unruly passengers. Some airlines even offer advanced programs — on a voluntary basis — but the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) still hasn’t designed a system for evaluating this training and — worse — flight attendants have a hard time getting time off to attend.

As for public recognition, there’s been almost nothing. Instead, what flight attendants have seen since I first wrote this story five years ago is a continuing series of layoffs, downsizings and reductions in pay.

Are our memories so short?

Flight attendants were the most consistent source of information on 9/11 when, at the risk of their lives, they phoned airline operations personnel to let them know about the hijackings; they even provided seat numbers and descriptions of the hijackers. Flight attendants were most certainly involved with the in-cabin attack on the terrorists aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania instead of into a building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Later, in one of the few instances of terrorism thwarted in the act, a diminutive flight attendant physically prevented a fanatic from lighting a fuse to a shoe-bomb that would have downed American Airlines Flight 63 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Flight attendants have acted heroically in very stressful situations, and yet actions by flight attendants aboard the United Airlines flight diverted to Boston last month have already gotten lost in the news cycle.

Let’s get our priorities straight.

Baggage screeners earn between $25,000 and $38,000 a year. TSA supervisors earn $44,400 to $68,800 a year. Federal air marshals make between $36,000 and $84,000 a year. These workers receive all the standard government perks of medical care, vacations and insurance. Meanwhile, flight attendants, the airlines’ real frontline troops, receive starting salaries of $18,000 a year — or less — and don’t have a prayer of seeing $30,000 for at least three years. Vacation time in those years is meager, while time “on reserve” (waiting around in case another flight attendant is sick or gets stuck in traffic) seems to be endless.

To add insult to paltry pay, over the past two years many flight attendants have had their retirement programs and pensions stripped from them by their struggling airline employers.

For years, we have heard the flight attendant’s mantra, “We are here for your safety.” Now those words are truer than ever. And safety, today, means far more than helping with oxygen masks, securing the overhead compartments, checking seat belts and opening emergency doors.

Let’s face it. Federal air marshals are not on most flights. While the plane is in the air, flight attendants are our first line of defense. They may be serving peanuts, pretzels and drinks, but they are constantly on watch and alert from the time they check IDs at the boarding gate until touchdown at the final destination.

Today’s flight attendants face what amounts to nonstop battle stress from an unidentified, furtive and unpredictable enemy.

I, for one, thank them for their service. All of us who fly should thank them as well.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.

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