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COLUMN ONE : Rough Ride for Flight Attendants : After years of battling image problems, they say tough economic times have made things even worse. As struggling airlines seek concessions, passengers gripe about service cuts.

November 25, 1993|STUART SILVERSTEIN and JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In her dozen years as a flight attendant, Angelica Eichinger has collected her share of war stories.

She kept passengers from panicking when an engine caught fire after takeoff. She called for an emergency landing after struggling to staunch the bleeding nose of a man whose artery burst.

And several times she has gracefully withstood verbal abuse from passengers who were angry because they couldn't buy more liquor.

For these and other midair feats, Eichinger and her colleagues hunger for a greater measure of respect from their bosses and sometimes unappreciative customers. But such recognition doesn't seem to be in the stars for the estimated 100,000 flight attendants working for U.S. carriers.

Despite three decades of favorable legislation and court victories, the soaring aspirations of flight attendants remain grounded by the brutal economics of the airline industry and biases dating to the "coffee, tea or me" era of 25 years ago.

Hard-pressed airlines are pushing attendants to work longer days, take shorter breaks, handle more passengers and do more cleaning up. Their salaries, which start at $13,000 at some major unionized carriers, lag far behind those of pilots or mechanics, with little prospect of catching up.

In fact, the average starting pay for attendants at major carriers is $14,496, compared to $26,180 for mechanics and $27,720 for pilots, according to the Future Aviation Professionals of America, a job bank for airline employees.

Flight attendants, 85% of whom are women, also see discrimination in the sometimes humiliating weight restrictions and appearance codes that apply to them but not to other airline employees. And they say they often feel taken for granted by passengers who do not realize the level of responsibilities they face. Attendants are trained to do everything from extinguishing on-board fires to providing first aid.

In short, flight attendants want to be treated like professionals. But they often face passengers who, Eichinger said, "don't realize you're there for their safety. They think you're there just to smile and say, 'What would you like to drink?' "

And for attendants who already feel scorned by customers, consumer anger over the recent five-day walkout against American Airlines has only made matters worse. It's unbelievable "that a bunch of waitresses could shut down an airline," sniped radio talk show host Howard Stern. "That's like the shoeshine guys shutting down Amtrak."

Moreover, some industry observers consider the job a low-status, dead-end career by design. The airlines' minimum education requirements usually call for no more than a high school diploma and four to six weeks of training.

"It's the same job, whether you're 25 years old or 80 years old," said John Hintz, a board member of the National Business Travel Assn., a group representing corporate travel managers.

Also, he said, many flight attendants "don't clearly understand the financial constraints the industry is up against."

Airline executives recognize that today's flight attendants are more sophisticated, career-oriented and demanding than in the past. But, they say, employees must learn to adapt to a new era in which the carriers that turn a profit are those with the lowest fares and most productive workers.

"We have no choice but to try and find a way to get our costs down to a point where we can be more competitive with the low-cost carriers of the industry," said Al Becker, an American Airlines spokesman. "The challenge is how do you adjust to competing with a low-cost carrier without undermining the quality of life and the lifestyle and earning power of your employees."

The complaints of flight attendants sometimes reflect more than the frustrations of employees seeking a better deal for themselves.

"The kind of work they do, to be continuously nice to 800 passengers in a bunch, is . . . emotional labor," said Arlie Russell Hochschild, a UC Berkeley sociologist who wrote about the psychological toll of flight attendants' jobs in her 1983 book, "The Managed Heart."

They are required to be extraordinary performers, Hochschild said. One main challenge is to make the flight "a comfortable, relaxed arena to get people's minds off of crashes."

"Part of the job is disguising that you're doing the job," she said. "Part of the job is to seem like you're having a good time at your own party." Consequently, attendants "feel starved for credit and for acknowledgment that there is work involved."

On a daily basis, their jobs involve everything from helping customers board and preparing meals to lifting luggage and sweeping carpets.

Despite such humdrum duties and frustrations over how they are perceived, attendants say they fly because they enjoy the travel and flexible work schedules. Charles Chien, an American Airlines flight attendant from Manhattan Beach, plays the piano professionally when he isn't in the air, arranging his concerts between flights. "There aren't many other jobs that would let me do that," Chien said.

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