17 years later: 9/11 flight attendants still unsung heroes


9/11 flight attendantsThere have been many ceremonies, new memorials, a giant museum, congressional plaudits, a new World Trade Center and remembrances for those who died in that day’s tragic events. This year there will be more.

Sadly, few of these events will include flight attendants, the first casualties of the terrorist attacks. Even more unfortunate, flight attendants are now on the front lines of what has become a world of growing stress between the airlines and the public they are supposed to serve as airlines pack more and more passengers into our flying aluminum and composite material tubes.

That’s a shame.

The bigger shame is that we are slowly but surely forgetting 9/11.

I’ve said so on every anniversary this last decade of the September attacks, and I’ll say it again this year. Together, let’s not forget.

The 9/11 flight attendants are the unsung heroes of that horrible day. Today, flight attendants are the frontline foot soldiers in this country’s “war on terrorism” that protects fliers across the world. Though experts cannot predict when there will be another terrorist attack, they can all agree that new terrorist plans are certainly being tested to attack our transportation systems.

Yet flight attendants continue to report to work every day, ready to do what they can to keep us safe and, of course, keep bread on their family’s tables. The traveling public takes them for granted, but worse, flight attendants are the unwitting front-line troops in the brewing tension between airlines and their passengers.

Flight attendants are faced with battles on three fronts — terrorists from the outside, disgruntled passengers and air rage inside increasingly packed airplanes, and unanswered airline labor-management issues. (With record airline profits, some of the labor issues are being addressed.)

At the same time, flight attendants are the public face of their airline, at least the human face in a world where human interaction is considered a money-losing activity by corporate airline bean counters.

The airline world has changed dramatically.

Click here to subscribeWhat was once a friendly, customer-centric atmosphere has been outsourced to a system of computerized kiosks, impersonal baggage tagging, irritating and surprising fees, maze-like lines from check-in to security, and then a simple beep as an overworked (and soon to be replaced by another machine) gate agent glides boarding passes under a glimmering laser scanner barely glancing at passengers shuffling, heads down, past them to board.

This is the impersonalization of air travel. The only friendly face we come across is often the flight attendant’s.

Before we get to the airport, it costs travelers money to talk to a real person when making a reservation, so we deal with our booking on a computer.

At the airport, passengers are greeted by a friendly stand of kiosks, blinking, “Welcome to our airline, please slide your credit card into my slot.” Then the series of questions begin — Would you like to upgrade? Would you like to purchase extra frequent flier miles? Would you like to get on board first? Would you like to check a bag? Two bags? Carry on a bag? Do you have a seat selection? Would you like to change your seat selection? Would you like a day pass for our executive club? How can we help part you with your money?

From airline greed to impersonalization to heightened security

Then, passengers enter the world of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Boarding passes are checked. Passengers are herded past stanchions through scanners and metal detectors. Blue rubber-gloved hands reach for IDs, then faces are compared to them. Blue-shirts bark the commands — Take off your shoes. Take your computer out of your briefcase. Throw away your water. That tube of toothpaste is too big. Hold up your hands.

Passengers are stripped naked by computers and X-rays, wondering what the little man behind the curtain can actually see. Carefully packed luggage is unpacked and pawed through by uniformed agents and left for travelers to repack. Wands are waved across our faces, along our backs, down our legs, around our feet. Increasingly aggressive pat-downs find strange hands groping our groins and squeezing our breasts and probing our armpits. People we don’t know order us to spread our legs and unbuckle our belts, then they reach into our pants.

Then we get on the plane, where a flight attendant can either be a source of comfort or a symbol of the system that makes travel so unpleasant and impersonal. Unfortunately, the same impersonal system we walk through to board an airplane is faced by flight attendants as well.

Once upon a time, the captain would walk through the cabin to say hello to passengers, joke with young children and hand out golden plastic wing pins. Not anymore. When it comes to dealing with passengers, flight attendants are alone, more alone than ever.

It is not a pretty picture from anyone’s point of view. Passengers are reeling from less and less service delivered by the airlines. Flight attendants are facing more air rage. The security systems created as a reaction to 9/11 have made travel Orwellian. This frustration all meets inside an aluminum tube at 30,000 feet — the only place where air travel actually gets personal.

Today may be a good time for both passengers and our unsung heroes to take a deep breath and realize that we are all in this airline world together. We are playing different roles, but have no choice but to treat each other as we would like to be treated ourselves.

Amen. May we never forget. Here are the names of the 9/11 flight attendants who perished.

American 11 (Boston to Los Angeles)
Crashed into World Trade Center
Barbara Arestegui, Marstons Mills, MA, flight attendant
Jeffrey Collman, Novato, CA, flight attendant
Sara Low, Boston, MA, flight attendant
Karen Martin, Danvers, MA, flight attendant
Kathleen Nicosia, Winthrop, MA, flight attendant
Betty Ong, Andover, MA, flight attendant
Jean Roger, Longmeadow, MA, flight attendant
Dianne Snyder, Westport, MA, flight attendant
Madeline Sweeney, Acton, MA, flight attendant

United 175 (Boston to Los Angeles)
Crashed into World Trade Center
Robert J Fangman, Claymont, DE, flight attendant
Amy Jarret, Philadelphia, PA and Rhode Island, flight attendant
Amy King, Stafford Springs, CT, flight attendant
Kathryn LaBorie, Providence, RI, flight attendant
Alfred Marchand, Alamogordo, NM, flight attendant
Michael Tarrou, Stafford Springs, CT, flight attendant
Alicia Titus, San Francisco, CA, flight attendant

American 77 (Washington/Dulles to Los Angeles)
Crashed into the Pentagon
Michele Heidenberger, Chevy Chase, MD, flight attendant
Jennifer Lewis, Culpeper, VA, flight attendant
Kenneth Lewis, Culpeper, VA, flight attendant
Renee May, Baltimore, MD, flight attendant

United 93 (Newark to San Francisco)
Crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Lorraine Bay, Hightstown, NJ, flight attendant
Sandy Bradshaw, Greensboro, NC, flight attendant
Wanda Green, Linden, NJ, flight attendant
CeeCee Lyles, Ft Myers, FL, flight attendant
Deborah Welsh, New York City, NY, flight attendant

Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia