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Insider Series: Are US Airline Crews Fit to Fly?

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Editor’s note about our Insider Series: TPG Contributor Carrie A. Trey shares some of her most interesting stories and perspectives in this Insider Series article. Please remember that Ms. Trey’s opinions and statements here are her own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the TPG Team. Disclaimer out of the way, please enjoy this installment from Carrie A. Trey.

You hear it almost every time you get on an airplane: “Your safety is our first priority.” But is it?

You’re walking down the jetway and as you approach the plane door, you see a kind-faced, well-dressed and geriatric flight attendant standing at the door greeting people. This woman is easily three times your age (and you’re in your forties) but yet there she is, still working. She’s smiling and charming enough, but with her arthritic hands and visibly frail arms, can she drag you to an exit in an emergency if you’re unconscious?

Flight attendants (Shutterstock)
Not all flight attendants are quite this young. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

You’re seated in your favorite aisle seat and as the service starts, you notice that the flight attendant working your aisle bumps his hips into you every time he passes. It’s not his fault, he’s just built that way. But then why is he working on an airplane with narrow aisles? If there was the need for an evacuation, would he be able to run down the aisle fast enough to get to the piece of emergency equipment he needs, and would he fit out the window if that were the only usable exit left?

In the United States, we have many flight attendants actively flying who aren’t in fact able-bodied enough to perform the safety tasks that may be required of them — and in any other country, they would be deemed unfit to fly. It’s nice when flight attendants serve you with a smile, but are they fit enough to drag you (or themselves) to an exit in an emergency should you be unable to do so yourself? Could they jump down a slide without hurting themselves and becoming yet another casualty if the plane had to be evacuated? And if crew members aren’t actually able to perform these duties effectively, then why aren’t US airlines doing anything about it?

For many years, airlines not only set retirement ages for crew, but some even required crews to weigh in before flights. (Shutterstock)
For many years, airlines not only set retirement ages for crew, but some even required crews to weigh in before flights. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For many years, airlines not only set retirement ages for crew, but some even required crew members to weigh in before flights. They also didn’t allow flight attendants to have children or spouses, among other archaic rules. However, most of that was gone by the mid-1980s, as second-wave feminist movements brought the United States into the modern age. Meanwhile, weigh-ins at some airlines actually continued up through the mid-1990s.

Then in the early 2000s, as part of the rampant cost-cutting that came in the wake of the September 11th attacks, yearly training programs were measurably slimmed down. Most airlines went from a two- or three-day yearly re-training course to a one-day course with computer-based learning required beforehand. As the courses became shorter, airlines did away with things like jumping down slides as part of recurrent training. With both of the US carriers I’ve flown for, recurrent training has never been more than opening and closing doors, performing CPR on a dummy and maybe operating a small piece of equipment such as a fire extinguisher.

So why is this significant?

As training programs became less demanding, they became easier to pass on a yearly basis. Some airlines in the US have even done away with the traditional exam at the end of yearly training, which generally requires a passing score of 80 or higher. When I was flying in Europe, we had exams that required us to look at blank diagrams of every type of aircraft on which we were certified to fly, and draw the location of every piece of its emergency equipment; this exam would cover a maximum of four aircraft types. (In the States, however, crew are certified on every type of aircraft in an airline’s fleet, which at Delta or American can be upwards of 10 different models.) In addition to these exams, every briefing included a safety question asked of each crew member by the purser; failure to answer correctly could result in removal from the crew. However, I guarantee that if I walked into a briefing in the US tomorrow and asked safety questions of my crew, half of them would be removed.

In the States, crew members demonstrate in recurrent training that they can still flip a door handle, pull the pin on a fire extinguisher and maybe even tilt a window exit out of its frame, but if there were an emergency, is this really all that would be required of them? In an emergency, a crew member who has a medical excuse stating that she can no longer wear heels because of a back injury may still in fact have to manually open the 100-pound+ door of a 747 on her own.

A situation could arise where the primary exit doors are no longer available during an evacuation, and a flight attendant would then be forced to egress through the window exits — so wouldn’t it be important for a flight attendant to be small and flexible enough to actually fit through those exits?

At some airlines, flight attendants are required to get in a pool and tread water for 10 minutes. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

To pass initial training, a flight attendant must be able to not only operate all the exits onboard, but also use them. That includes being able to jump down the slides, and continue being part of the solution after an evacuation, rather than hurting themselves and becoming part of the problem. Yet even this step has been streamlined back in the US, where training programs only require flight attendants to jump down one slide, usually on a 737 or 757. In Australia, however, CASA (the Aussie equivalent of the FAA) requires that crew members must jump down the slides of every aircraft they’re certified to operate; if you’re certified to fly the 747, for instance, then jumping down the slide from the upper deck is simply part of your training.

In initial training, we were also required to get in a pool and tread water for 10 minutes, and then in teams of two practice pulling everyone else into the raft — as can be seen in this LuxAir video. It’s frightening to think that this might be something that we would one day be required to do, but it is in fact something that could potentially happen. So why isn’t every member of the crew fit enough to perform these duties?

Litigation plays a big role in this story, too. It’s no secret that the United States has become arguably the most litigious country in the world. Airlines have shied away from coming up with a forced retirement age or addressing flight attendant’s fitness to effectively perform their duties for fear of being sued. Flight attendants come into work left and right with doctors’ notes allowing them to wear clogs or sneakers because they can no longer wear heels as a result of back, foot or leg injuries and notes stating that they cannot lift more than X number of pounds. Many of these things would disqualify them from flying anywhere else in the world, but here in the United States we turn a blind eye for fear of being accused of discrimination.

In Europe, a doctor would be required to certify that despite the condition for which the crew member is carrying a note, he or she can still effectively and efficiently perform ALL safety- AND service-related duties without posing a risk to themselves or the passengers in their care. This would make the note obsolete, since being able to wear your uniform correctly is indeed a part of the job. For that matter, every regulatory agency outside the United States requires that cabin crew pass a yearly medical exam certifying that they’re fit to fly. Pilots are indeed still required to do this in the US, but flight attendants are not. Pilots also are required to retire at 65 in the US, but there is no set age on the books for flight attendants.

At Delta — and other major US airlines — safety is a flight attendant’s main priority; youth and strength help. Photo by Melanie Wynne.

Now the problem has only been compounded by the fact that if medical exams or more stringent training requirements were instituted, airlines would lose so many staff that they would have a hard time replacing them fast enough. But can they afford not to do this? If there were a major accident at any of the American airlines, and a flight attendant’s fitness or inability to perform safety duties resulted in a casualty of some sort, wouldn’t that cost the airlines far more?

To be clear, I adore some of the older crew members that I fly with — and most importantly, I feel totally safe flying with many of them. I have flown with many a flight attendant over the age of 65 who I have no doubt could jump down a slide, pull me or a passenger into a raft or sprint down an aisle to get a fire extinguisher if need be. I think the majority of cabin crew flying in the US today are perfectly capable of being a part of the solution in an emergency rather than contributing to the problem. That said, I have flown with plenty of crew members whom I have looked at in the briefing and thought, “If there’s an emergency, I need to make sure he/she gets off the plane too because they won’t be able to do it themselves.”

So when will we see a change? What is going to have to happen for the FAA and the airlines in the US to realize that EVERY crew member on EVERY flight must be fit enough to perform all of their safety duties, even the ones we don’t like to think about and hope we’ll never have to perform?

Because if we’re totally honest with ourselves, right now that’s not the case.

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