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Flight Attendants Rebel Against the Unfriendly Skies

Reports of passengers’ bad behavior on commercial flights have been all over the news.

This behavior has taken its toll on flight attendants. Already stressed by a myriad of challenges in the workplace, they have had to endure insults, aggressive behavior, and threats from passengers. The pandemic has upended their workload and schedules and made uncertainty a permanent work stressor, but their well-being is critical to the quality of air travel.

Video Spotlight: Reports of Unruly Passengers are Soaring – Airlines and Flight Attendants Want Stiffer Penalties (June 23, 2021, CNBC Television)

This post is based on The New York Times article, Flight Attendants’ Hellish Summer: ‘I Don’t Even Feel Like a Human’, by T. Rychter, August 26, 2021, and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: Image Source / Christopher Robbins.

Discussion Questions:

1. What are the factors contributing to flight attendants’ burnout?

Guidance: The main factors contributing to flight attendants’ burnout are: unruly, aggressive, and verbally abusive passengers; work overload due to staff shortages; lack of rest (sleep deprivation and not enough time to recuperate between long shifts); uncertainty about schedules and work conditions; and overbooking of flights.

2. What are the potential consequences of flight attendants’ burnout on the service to passengers?

Guidance: Flight attendants are inputs to the process of meeting passengers’ expectations. The “quality” of the inputs therefore affects the quality of the process and its outcomes. Flight attendants’ fatigue and stress could adversely impact their decision-making abilities, adherence to flight protocols, attentiveness and responsiveness to passengers’ needs, ability to carry out routine duties, and overall attitude. The quality of service would suffer, and more importantly, passenger safety might be at risk.

3. The Chief Operating Officer of Southwest Airlines said that “historical staffing models have not been effective in this pandemic environment.” Explain why that is the case.

Guidance: Capacity planning models are based on aggregate planning models in the medium time horizon (12-18 months). These plans are disaggregated to produce schedules in the short term. With the uncertainty due to COVID-19, forecasts based on historical data are flawed, leading to inaccurate plans. Because airline personnel had been laid off or furloughed at the height of the pandemic, labor shortages have made scheduling even more difficult, and the high utilization of “reserve” flight attendants has decreased the staffing flexibility required to handle the demand-capacity imbalances.


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