I wrote this piece last year as an entry into a writing contest that posed the question, “When did you first realize that you had become a grown-up?” Obviously it didn’t win because if it had, you’d have known about it. For those of you who don’t know, I am an International Flight Attendant when I’m not writing or cleaning up parrot poop. It’s never been published before and I think it’s a pretty good piece so I’m putting it here:
Flying Into the Side of Life
By Patricia Sund
Six months after September 11, 2001, I found myself speaking with a Psychologist about why I found it difficult to leave the house. About how I felt I should be “over it” by now. About why I could go to work and fly for days at a time as a Flight Attendant and yet, when I returned home to the relative safety of my home in Florida, I ceased to function.
I was seeing this psychologist because I knew I needed to do something about this if I ever intended to get to the grocery store again. She gave me some homework: I was to answer a long series of essay questions about my upbringing. I titled the work, “Battling Early Onset Adulthood.”
Writing answers to questions about myself was fine with me, but I had made it abundantly clear at our first session that role playing with dolls was out of the question. Written essays? Yes, Cabbage Patch Kid? Umm, no.
I was talking to a neighbor about the tough time I was having. He was a real estate agent and he thought I shouldn’t be so upset. “You should be over it by now,” he said. I replied as we parted company, “How would you feel if the first victims of the attack were real estate agents?”
My therapist told me that the number of airline personnel throughout the country seeking professional help had grown exponentially and her client list of flight crew members had skyrocketed. Many flight attendants simply resigned altogether. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my fear.
I had been hired in 1987. At the time, it appeared that the training department was hell-bent on “procedure.” They had pat answers to every situation, every emergency. “If this happens; you do this.” There was no alternative and no variation in the required response. Every possible crisis or situation was addressed and prefaced with, “In the unlikely event…”
9/11 was about as unlikely as you could get in my profession. Obviously, the strategy for handling such a catastrophic occurrence onboard failed.
Since that time, the training in place for such an event has since been radically revised. Reacting to emergencies no longer has an automatic and mechanical response. My company realized that Flight Attendants had to be trusted to “think on our feet” and to respond to each situation as best we could as the situation warranted. We were now expected to handle incidents using our judgment and we were to rely on our training as it suited the situation.
When I was hired and trained, the emphasis was about “approachability,” “passenger perception,” and “service procedures.” We were more anxious about trying to decipher what a “Level-Two Deluxe Breakfast Service” was, than worrying about having to run down the aisle, tackle someone, truss them up like a turkey, and hope to God you had a doctor on board so you could have them sedated until landing. My job description changed with those events. Overnight, my career had gone from, “How can I help you?” to “What equipment can I locate and use onboard as a weapon?”
Within a week after those events in New York, we were back in the air. I was sitting in Quito, Ecuador having lunch with my crew. We were disoriented, contending with the high altitude, exhausted from working as a “minimum crew” on three packed flights the day before and terrified about the coming times in aviation. It was our first trip since 9/11 and we had just performed a jet-fueled, high-wire act in the air: Appearing calm when we were scared out of our wits. Airports were quagmires of tension, emotion and stress.
I remarked to the Captain that I had a hunch we were about to become their personal protectors. I thought procedures would be changed to create a “disconnect” between the Pilots and the flying public. Flight Attendants would now be the ones in charge of protecting the security and integrity of the flight.
He chuckled. “I don’t think so. I’m still in charge of the cabin.” I answered, “Don, how can you be in charge of anything when you’re locked in the cockpit behind a bulletproof door?”
My hunch was correct. In the weeks after, we became onboard bodyguards for the pilots. Annual training now includes self-defense techniques. We now manage the cabin without the possibility of the pilots coming out of the flight deck. “The Skirts” were now defending “The Hats.”
Gradually, it became easier. Flight Attendants took the change in stride and accepted our new roles as defenders of the aircraft. We learned what to be alert to, what to watch for, and how to manage the stress. We became accustomed to the increased security now that it that had been ratcheted up numerous notches.
For a time, our passengers even thanked us. They were kind to us and showed a modicum of respect for what we needed to accomplish on the aircraft. They listened and were sensitive to our grief. They seemed to accept the sudden new ascetic of our jobs.
No longer were flight professionals looked upon as a collection of hard-partying, nonresponsive, apathetic and overpaid waiters and waitresses onboard to hang your coat, pour you a drink and listen to you complain about how awful the service was.
I think people understood that those Crew Members who lost their lives on that day were not overpaid. They realized that there wasn’t enough money in the world to compensate for what had happened.
As time went on, the public forgot about our role in that day’s events and went back to being angry with us. They returned to amplifying a small perceived slight such as a forgotten bag of pretzels, a spilled drink, or a duplicate seat assignment. They were irritated by the tightened security and carried that irritation onto the aircraft.
Most of us continued to fly. However, the event changed us. We are more serious and we’re less likely to put up with any “irregularities” in the system designed by the Department of Homeland Security.
In the months and years after, many of us made radical modifications to our personal lives. There were scads of breakups and divorces. However, it seems that the relationships that survived became stronger. Partners came to understand the seriousness of our role as professionals. It was as if Flight Attendants and Pilots were collectively recognizing that life was too short to be unhappy, and they made adjustments as a result of this realization. People pursued their ambitions and no longer put off what they really wanted to do. They became serious about fulfilling their dreams and didn’t regret it if that dream meant rearranging their life. I think they adjusted to this new reality of life in the sky and their lives became less cluttered and more meaningful.
As for me, I was one of the many who “made an adjustment.” I terminated a relationship that I couldn’t seem to end until after the tragedy. I went on from there as I usually do and continue to fly. I’ve also pursued other interests that have made me satisfied and content. I am happier, calmer, and I’m more concerned about what is right for my life as opposed to being constantly worried about the needs of others. I’d finally recognized that it was up to me to be happy; it was no one else’s responsibility.
Like others who were touched by 9/11, I still think about it every day. Unlike people in other professions, Flight Attendants must return to the scene of the crime every day they fly.
The adversity of that day made flight crews stronger. We work more closely as a team and we’re less inclined to be as distracted and less overwhelmed by the petty details of our work. It was the glue that made crews look to each other for support and back-up because if it ever happened again, all we had was each other.
The entire nation went through a metamorphosis on 9/11. As a result, we have adjusted our point of view, realizing we aren’t as secure and unassailable as we previously thought. We’ve recognized our vulnerability; admitted our fragility. I think acknowledging some of our shortcomings made all of us stronger, more mature and more realistic about our place in the world. I think we all grew up that day.