Life of a flight attendant (Part 2): Dealing with passengers from hell

Elizabeth Soh
Y! Travel Journal
Life of a flight attendant

Up in the air: Air Asia Japan's cabin attendants provide the in-flight meal. (AFP photo)

What’s life really like behind the bright smiles, perfect uniforms and five-star hotel stays of jet-setting flight attendants?  In a three-part series on the inflight service industry, Yahoo! Singapore finds out that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Read Part 1 here. In the second part of this series, flight attendants reveal how they deal with nasty passengers and even nastier situations, all with a smile. (For the purposes of this series, only first names have been used as most flight crew are bound by confidentiality agreements).
Serving demanding customers in a restaurant can be nasty business. But up in the air, it can be many times worse.

Cranky passengers and crying children cramped into limited space for hours miles in the air make for one of the most pressurizing (pun intended) working environments in any service industry.

“There’s a 50/50 chance of a flight being smooth or a complete nightmare. The stress can be incredibly high – and there’s no escape. You’re in a plane. You can’t leave and take a smoke or walk to the back of a restaurant for some fresh air. You take a minute to calm yourself in the tiny crew galley and then it’s back to work to face those annoyed, uncomfortable and angry passengers,” summed up Qantas steward Rick, 36.

In his almost decade long career as a flight steward, Rick has done everything from warming up milk in an ice bucket while balancing a screaming baby on his hip, to chasing couples hoping to join the mile-high club out of plane toilets.

“It’s a skill like no other. I tell my friends, I can handle anybody and anything now. And with a smile,” laughed the Singapore-born steward who is now an Australian citizen.

Unlike Rick, however, most of the other 14 flight crew Yahoo! spoke to said they often struggled with keeping their smile – and cool – when confronted with nightmare passengers and filthy, clogged toilets which stink up the entire plane.

Treated like slaves

The poor treatment starts right from the get go – with fussy passengers demanding to have their seats switched or shoving hand-carry luggage at flight crew expecting to be helped with stowing it away.

“If I see a young lady or elderly person struggling with pushing their luggage into the overhead compartments, of course I will help. But so many times rude passengers just dump their luggage on my arms and then sit down after telling me to ‘help me keep this’. I tell them politely they are supposed to do it themselves, but still help with it anyway,” said SQ stewardess Karen, 31, who added that many even roll their luggage over the feet of cabin crew in their haste to get to their seats.

She has also had passengers asking for their seats to be switched because they don’t like the person they’ve been placed next to, feel that their seats are uncomfortable, or, incredibly, want to have empty seats next to them so they can take a two or three seat nap across the row.

“If it’s a child or someone who is genuinely uncomfortable and the flight is not full, we always oblige,” said Karen.

“Sometimes we can’t because there aren’t enough seats, and they are being unreasonable. Some are just trying their luck, but we’ve had people who shouted until their saliva hits our faces and then threaten to complain to management.”

In these cases, Karen simply escalates the matter to the lead flight crew and continues about her business.

The rudeness usually continues on through the flight, with passengers simply reaching out to tug on the flight crew’s uniforms as they move up and down the aisle. Certain Asian passengers, for example, are commonly known for being blatantly disrespectful to stewardesses.

“These men just yank at my skirt when I am distributing snacks or drinks. Once they pulled so hard at my colleague’s skirt she nearly fell down, and they laughed,” said Korean Air stewardess Jenny, 27.

Her colleague was so humiliated that she started to cry once she reached the back of the plane.

Jenny said that she has also been pinched on her arm by persistent passengers and some even try to walk up to the meal trolley to demand a tray because they cannot wait their turn, and others who treat her uniform like a napkin, wiping their dirty hands on her skirt as she walks past.

Meal-times are another trial for flight crew, as they are inundated with demands for extra meals, different food and drinks while cleaning up the mess made by clumsier passengers or children.

“The most common issue we deal with are people who do not inform us beforehand that they need a vegetarian meal, and then get upset when we don’t have enough to go around. We only pack a limited number of vegetarian meals. Some of these passengers aren’t even vegetarians – I’ve seen many who finish the regular meal and demand a second vegetarian one,” said Emirates stewardess Shikin, 26.

Those who ask for second rounds and it’s likely that a crew member has to give up his or her meal for you as catering only allows for a limited number of meals to be brought on board to avoid wastage and save space.)

“So many times we’ve given up eating ourselves so a passenger can have an extra portion – but I have only been thanked once,” said Shikin ruefully.

Drunken, rowdy passengers

All flight crew are unanimous when it comes to their passenger from hell – The Rowdy Drunk. Usually male, middle-aged and travelling alone, they are the most difficult to handle and agitate the entire plane of passengers with their antics.

“I can tahan (tolerate) the sleepy drunks. At most, they vomit and then fall asleep. But the ones who start disturbing other passengers and crew are the worse,” said SQ steward Frank, 32.

Flight crew are given instructions on how to prevent the passenger from getting drunk in the first place: once they notice a passenger has been drinking, they mix weaker drinks or try to offer them other beverages instead. However, this method does not work on most, who are already determined to drink as much as possible.

“They get angry and ask why I’m adding less alcohol and more mixer. Then they demand to have three miniatures (small alcohol bottles). It’s really tough to stay polite and helpful but firm,” said Frank.

Things get ugly quickly – many drunk passengers start to slur and use rude languages to harass flight crew who deny them more alcohol, or vomit on themselves and their neighbours, creating a scene and disturbing their fellow passengers.

Frank said that in worst case scenarios, if the passenger starts getting violent or verbally abusive, the crew leads him or her away to the back of the plane, where they try to isolate and sober up the person up. If they can’t control him, plastic flexi-cuffs are used to attach the passenger to male crew members, who stay with him for the rest of the journey until the plane touches down.

“I have had to accompany one drunk passenger who puked on himself, puked on me and all over the seat. It was the worst flight ever. I felt like throwing up too and let’s just say he threw up 2 hours into a 7-hour journey,” said Frank, his expression full of disgust.

Ex-steward Donald Yeo, 46, recounts a horror situation when a drunk South Asian passenger started arguing with passengers and crew and using derogatory terms on the stewardesses. He refused help to go to the toilet, and on his way down the aisle, fell flat on his face, losing two teeth.

“Wow, that moment was just great. Of course, we couldn’t show it on our faces, but it felt really good. I didn’t even mind cleaning up his vomit after that,” said Yeo.

Filthy toilets

Second on their list of pet peeves are filthy toilets, especially on long haul flights. All it takes, they say, is one inconsiderate passenger for the mess to get out of control.

“It can get absolutely gross, worse than a public toilet,” said Karen, describing occasions when she found faeces on the floor or on top of the toilet seat, dirty baby diapers overflowing from the trash bin, and a wash basin clogged with spat-up food.

“We do our best to clean it up, but often we have to shut the toilet, which is a lose-lose situation because the other toilets get overused and equally dirty.”

The other flight crew have had their share of stomach-curdling moments. One reached into the front pouch of a seat to get a vomit bag for an ill passenger, only to pull out a hand coated in phlegm – the passenger had earlier spat into the bag. Another was given a used blanket by a First Class Passenger only to find a mess of baby faeces and urine when it was opened. 

“Glamour? What glamour? There is no glamour in cleaning toilets,” said Rick with a laugh.

“When you think about what we have to put up with on flights, you won’t think that our salaries are that fantastic. We’re often so exhausted after long flights we sleep away our recreational time, and by the time we’re rested, it’s time to meet our next plane load of passengers.”

In the third and final part of this series, we speak to a stewardess about the occupational hazards of her job and how she got herself into over thirty thousand dollars of debt.