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A New Generation of Flight Attendants Adjust to Terror Threats

“It makes me want to change careers.”

These are the words of Risa (I’ve decided to withhold her last name in consideration of the decision she is struggling with), a 2013-hire flight attendant I spoke to after she confessed a crisis of confidence in the job. It is, of course, completely understandable. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks on the November 13, a new generation of flight attendants are processing, viscerally, how their job could imminently put them in specific places and situations, like it or not.

Just two days prior Risa’s words had been, “Lately, I’ve been having a hard time deciding if this is really worth it.” That was before the news broke that in this weekend’s siege at the Mali hotel, gunmen were specifically “hunting for” Air France crew members. They were saved by a security guard who purposely misled the attackers about their location, but another Russian flight crew of six were not so lucky. This is the blow that advanced Risa’s doubt into the opening quote. If flight attendants were stirred before, the Mali details were a shake.

So are we scared to fly to Europe right now? Are we questioning the whole job? With each passing event and terror alert, more people ask me. A percentage of flight attendants are scared, sure — and sometimes that’s as much about the families we leave behind when we go to work as it is about ourselves. That point was brought home by several flight attendants, like Michael J and Jen Ramsey, who both relayed stories of “freaked out” mothers, even though they feel “fine” (albeit with “fear in the back” of their heads). Personally, I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than it was a month ago. We’re just freshly aware.

But of course, I’ve been here before. Everyone in “my generation” of flight attendants was here through 9/11 (remember, there was a near-total hiring stop at all legacies from that day until 2012). Any of us who were going to be spooked out of the job by terrorism surely got out then! The feelings aren’t fun, but we’re used to them.

For many in the “new generation” of flight attendants, it’s the first time travels will take them into a place of political and/or security unrest — and on the point of professional pressure. Sure, they thought about all this before they took the job, but this is the moment when a hypothetic turns real. It takes some processing, at least.

They don’t even know what to expect. Airlines do not have (published) policies in place for crew when something like this takes place. From experience, my generation knows an airline will usually give leeway (for a while) to refuse trips in situations like this. However, this is all decided on the fly. We just have to feel our way through the intersection of fears and job demands. The first flight attendants who refuse trips do so without guarantee. Nervous colleagues begin to ask around, “What will happen if I refuse to go?” Word simply spreads by mouth (and nowadays Facebook) as to whether the first lot got disciplined — and when such goodwill runs out.

Right now our emails and Facebook posts are full of Embassy number listings, security tips and reminders (stop those careless social media hotel check-ins!) and warnings that terrorism isn’t the only thing simmering. One colleague reports that a crew in Frankfurt, Germany just got physically caught in the middle of competing protests that erupted between local citizens and Syrian refugees. The conflict turned aggressive and the crew became rightfully scared. (Situational awareness is a skill that comes with time and practice, something good for all travelers to brush up on!)

I clearly remember being a new hire, studying the hijackings of the 1960s and 70s and thinking, “I don’t know how flight attendants kept working under such threats!” Three years later I was doing just that, continuing to fly through 9/11 and the modern age of threats. Now again, 14 years on, here I stand only to realize that the new crop of flight attendants may have had the exact same thoughts about us.

Quite a few flight attendants quit after 9/11, but most of us made it through, as most new hires will make it through this. The story is still unfolding, but those that do leave will be flight attendants already struggling through the first tough years of wondering if the job is for them after all.

I’m pulling for Risa and all those like her to find the decision they’ll feel good about, whatever that may be. I hope it helps to have mentors at the ready. These are feelings we know all too well — we’re here and we’re happy to talk them through. If any should leave, it would be a shame, but even if just for their worried families, certainly not a single one could blame them.

[Image: Getty]

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