When Essence Griffin started working as a flight attendant in 2022 she was thrilled.
Griffin was in her early 20s and desperate to see the world. The years stuck at home during the pandemic had “lit a fire” inside her.
“I really wanted to travel,” she tells CNN Travel. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to get out, and I’ve got to go see things as soon as I can.’”
At first, Griffin’s job as a flight attendant for a US airline felt like the perfect opportunity. But after just over a year of flying, she decided to take a step back.
“I’m taking a break now,” she says. “I got burned out.”
Griffin’s not alone. Working as a flight attendant might sound like a dream job – but in a post-pandemic aviation landscape defined by delays, lost luggage, staffing issues and disruptive passengers, the dream is souring for some.
The legacy of the pandemic
2020 saw many aviation workers furloughed, while those still working risked falling ill. Then, as the pandemic waned and airplanes returned to the skies, airlines struggled to restaff quickly enough to match demand.
When aviation returned, disruptive passengers seemed more prevalent than ever – with the then-obligatory wearing of face masks often the inciting factor. Since 2021, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported a “rapid growth” in “incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior.”
US flight attendant Rich Henderson, who’s been flying for a decade, says during the pandemic, “the whole thing shifted, the whole environment and the energy in the environment shifted.”
“I always tell people that when Covid happened, all of the fun parts of being a flight attendant, all of the satisfying, exciting parts of being a flight attendant were stripped from the job,” Henderson tells CNN Travel.
In Henderson’s opinion, it’s all yet to shift back – staffing, scheduling and long days remain an issue, while disruptive passenger incidents are a continuing concern.
These issues are not specific to the US, according to Dutch flight attendant Juliana Oliveira.
“Some days we are working 12, 15 hours a day. And we are so tired,” Oliveira tells CNN Travel. “And we are sometimes expected to come to work the next day again – with the same long days, with the delays and everything.”
Flight attendants don’t want delays any more than passengers, adds Oliveira, suggesting there is a misconception that crew are paid during long waits on the ground.
“We only get paid from the turning on of the engine until turning off,” she says. There are certain airlines that are exceptions to this rule, but this is the general policy.
The FAA stipulates that flight attendants in the US are supposed to clock off after 14 hours. But Henderson says “once the door of the aircraft is closed, we’re powerless, so we can go illegal while we’re in the middle of working a sequence if we’re still on the plane.”
Oliveira says flight attendants in Europe have similar limitations on working hours under the European Aviation Security Agency (EASA) but “we can go further than 14 hours under special conditions.”
“We do not get extra pay for extra hours,” she says.
Extra long days make dealing with disruptive passengers all the more draining. Henderson recalls a “day that clocked in at 17 hours and one minute” which ended with a hostile passenger interaction
“I had a passenger throw a cup at me, tell me I was worthless and tell me that I was horrible at my job,” says Henderson. “I felt so dehumanized.”
Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggests an “increasing frequency and severity” of disruptive passenger incidents: a June 2023 IATA report states there was one unruly incident reported for every 568 flights in 2022, up from one per 835 flights in 2021.
The problem’s so omnipresent there’s a whole conference dedicated to the issue – Dispax World, the international conference on unruly airline passenger management and restraint, set to take place in October 2023 in Prague in the Czech Republic.
The conference will gather legal experts, academics, officials and flight attendants to discuss what they call “the scourge of unruly passenger behavior.”
IATA data suggests the most common issue among disruptive passengers is “non-compliance.” With mask-wearing no longer compulsory, it’s passengers smoking, failing to fasten seatbelts when instructed and consuming their own alcohol on board the aircraft that are among the top issues.
Henderson suggests there was an onboard passenger behavioral shift in 2020 that’s only continued to spiral in the years since.
“I think during Covid, and that sort of era, people were really emboldened to speak up when they felt like something was wrong or unjust – whether or not it actually was is debatable – but people just felt more empowered to push back on rules,” he says.
“I think we’re still in a time period where people just feel they can get away with whatever they want.”
Mental health impact
The net effect of these issues is “morale is down,” as US flight attendant Nastassja Lewis puts it.
Lewis is the founder of flight attendant mental health nonprofit th|AIR|apy, which provides support and advice for flight attendants struggling with mental health and wellbeing.
The nonprofit started as a Facebook support group for flight attendants in 2018, launched by Lewis at a time when her own “mental health took a dive.”
“I have had a lot of experience with burnout myself, where I have just broken down and just cried,” she says.
During the pandemic, the group’s numbers ballooned and Lewis says she “realized there was a need for mental health advocacy within aviation.”
Now, th|AIR|apy’s website has resources, offers emergency assistance funds and a 24/7 peer-to-peer text line.
“We launched that text line in 2021,” says Lewis. “And within the first six months, we had over 10,000 text messages, exchanged back and forth between volunteers and texters.”
The text line was initially US only, but th|AIR|apy now offers an international service via WhatsApp.
“So we’re getting messages from all over the world,” says Lewis. “Anywhere there is a flight attendant, we have gotten a message from them saying, ‘I just need to talk to somebody, and I need support.’”
Lewis and her team have noticed recurring themes in the messages from “shorter turnaround times, the uncertainty, the industry’s vulnerability to external factors.”
“Work-life balance” is also a term that comes up regularly, as well as “disruptive passengers.”
There are often messages from junior flight attendants who, like Essence Griffin, feel there’s a gap between their expectations of the job and the grueling reality.
First year flight attendants have the least control over their schedules, so are most likely to feel the brunt of the industry’s issues.
“Most airlines are based on seniority,” says Griffin. “So the longer you’ve been there, the more safer you get, the more control you have of your schedule. You can choose the amount of hours you get to work. So the longer you stay, the better it gets.”
“In our industry, until you gain enough seniority, predictability is not your best friend and then add isolation on top of it, you’re going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to experience fatigue,” says Lewis, who says flight attendant attrition is an ongoing problem.
Lewis and her volunteer team can’t offer direct solutions to these issues, but they can provide support and empathy. She says there’s a comfort in being honest about experiences.
The power of empathy is something Henderson has noticed too. In his spare time he runs an Instagram account, Two Guys on a Plane with his husband Andrew Henderson, a fellow flight attendant.
Two Guys on a Plane’s Instagram feed is populated with memes and jokes about working as a flight attendant, but under the veneer of humor, some very real issues are spotlighted – including flight attendant burnout and waning mental health.
Henderson realized his experiences were universal when fellow flight attendants started approaching him at work to talk about his posts.
“I think being honest, but in a funny way, was something that really resonated with people,” he says.
On social media, he got similar feedback from flight attendants from across the globe, which he says “just goes to show how universal our thoughts and feelings about the job and pressures really are.”
It was both reassuring – and depressing – to Henderson to realize other flight attendants felt similarly burned out.
“There was no roadmap on how to cope or how to get through that,” he admits, but he felt better sharing his experiences with others.
Henderson started therapy this year and has also been talking through his feelings with his therapist.
“I guess that kind of helped me understand my own thoughts and feelings,” he says. “Is this the job for me anymore? Is this just a phase? Is it because I’m hitting 10 years of flying?”
Looking to the future
Some of the flight attendants who spoke to CNN Travel suggest pay increases could help ameliorate the situation and acknowledge the long hours.
American Airlines flight attendants’ union recently voted to authorize strike action, demanding “meaningful improvements” in flight attendants’ contracts. In a statement, American Airlines responded stating it is looking “forward to reaching an agreement that provides our flight attendants with real and meaningful value.”
Lewis also advocates for an increased passenger/traveler understanding, “to foster a more understanding and empathetic atmosphere on these flights.”
“A lot of people, when they think of flight attendants, all they think about is that we’ll be there to serve them a Coke, help them with their bags, and that’s basically where our job ends,” she says.
“They don’t know how much we’re responsible for. We’re responsible for your safety, making sure safety protocols are enforced, and of course customer service. But we work really, really long hours in really, really unpredictable environments, and that is really vital for them to know.”
For all the stresses of the job, and for all the times he’s wondered whether to pack it all in, Henderson says he’s still grateful to be a flight attendant – he loves traveling, and that’s never wavered.
“I never want to sound like I completely hate my job, because I don’t,” he says. “But I also want to be realistic about what’s going on.”
As for Griffin, the recently qualified flight attendant who’s taken a break from aviation, she says she still looks back at her year flying with a positive lens, despite “the craziness.”
“I met so many people, I had so many experiences, I traveled to so many places within a year, it’s insane. So I’m so grateful for my experience,” she says.
“It wasn’t what I thought, and I did get burnt out very easily. But it’s something that I would definitely come back to in the future.”