If it’s not a Boeing, I’m not going.
That’s a phrase I’ve heard often over the course of my 20-plus career as a flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier. Even I may have uttered the phrase a few times after my airline replaced the Boeing 767 with the new Airbus on the New York-to-Los Angeles route.
I never worked the 737 Max. Because of bleed air issues on the Airbus A321, I was forced to take an unpaid medical leave in August, around the same time the Max was introduced at American Airlines.
Bleed air is basically engine oil getting sucked into the cabin. Bleed air contains organophosphate (TCP) and other harmful chemicals. You know that kerosene smell that floods the cabin after you land? Well, you’re not supposed to smell that, and yet it happens so often new flight attendants think it’s normal.
Perhaps maybe you’ve noticed you feel a lot more fatigued after a flight than you once did. Might not be because you’re getting older. It could be bleed air. This isn’t a new issue, but it’s a new problem that’s on the rise and I believe it’s connected to new aircraft with new International Aero Engines (IAE). The IAE saves airlines money. But at what expense?
Because bleed air is such a problem on the Airbus, I stopped working the New York-to-Los Angeles route and went out of my way to only work trips on Boeing airplanes. It was because of bleed air issues on new planes that I fell in love with our old planes again, aircraft that most passengers hate because there aren’t TV monitors and chargers in every seat.
These passengers walk on board and immediately start complaining, but that never stops me from smiling because I don’t care about mood lighting or WiFi anymore.
When the 737 Max first came out, I knew there was a problem right away because of things flight crews would share on Facebook. One pilot stated he couldn’t turn around in the lavatory. A flight attendant said she could only wash one hand at a time in the tiny sink. The biggest concern had to do with the location of the bathrooms and what happened when two passengers opened the doors at the same time. The doors would seal the flight attendants off from the main cabin.
Might not sound like a big deal to some people, but for those of us who were around during 9/11, it’s a huge security concern. I thought for sure the company would address it because the last thing you want is the crew cut off from passengers during an emergency. The company didn’t care. Profits over people.
We’re all in a race to the bottom. That became a new favorite phrase as I began to notice how quickly things were changing in the airline industry. Sometimes it feels like I’m watching the Titanic sink. Like, this thing that was once so great is no longer great.
Which brings us to the word “new.” Some seemed shocked to learn the 737 airliners that crashed in Indonesia and Ethiopia were brand new. Don’t get confused by the word “new.” In Airline World, the word “new” doesn’t automatically mean “better.” In Airline World, the word “new” usually equates to worse … I mean cheap … no, I mean crap. The problem with all our new crap is it usually comes with problems, big problems. All of these new big problems have been reported to the FAA. The biggest problem we have with FAA is that they refuse to even acknowledge the problems, no matter how many many of us report something. This is why the FAA’s initial response to the Ethiopian crash didn’t shock me like it did a lot of people.
Americans don’t care about safety.
This is my new favorite phase. On that note, I’d like to point out that China was the first country to ground the 737 Max aircraft. China. Not the United States. In fact, it took three days for the FAA to admit we might have a problem. Pretty sure America the Great was the last country to ground the fleet.
After the Ethiopian Airlines crash, as foreign carriers around the world began to follow in China’s footsteps, many people wondered if U.S airlines would do the same. I knew we wouldn’t, at least not without pressure from the FAA. Based on my experience over the last two years with the FAA, I knew that wouldn’t happen either, at least not without the media shining a spotlight on the situation. Even with the nonstop media coverage, I knew the general public would have to demand the FAA take action.
As an ever-growing list of countries started grounding 737 Max fleets, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao purposely flew aboard a Southwest 737 Max on Tuesday from Austin to Washington to prove the aircraft was safe. Forget about figuring what went wrong, because that could eat into profits and in Airline World profits keep stockholders happy
When I heard how Elaine Chao went about proving the plane was safe, I was reminded of how another bigwig in Airline World went about proving something in the airline industry was safe. As thousands of flight attendants at American Airlines were getting sick from wearing the company’s new uniform, AA’s VP of Flight Service said he would wear the new uniform — not to get to the bottom of what was going on, but to prove the uniform was safe.
A few days later he was promoted out of the uniform and into a higher position that didn’t require him to make any promises to sick people. Now, almost three years later, over five thousand flight attendants have reported serious health issues due to the toxins in the uniform, yet the airline still continues to claim the uniform is safe.
How many sick airline employees are too many sick airline employees….in America? How many 737 crashes are too many 737 crashes? Unless the media stays on top of the story, nobody cares, so the FAA doesn’t have to acknowledge the problem and therefore everything is A-OK. Safe.
Safe has become a trigger word for me. Whenever I hear somebody claim something is safe, that’s my cue to start doing research. The first thing I do is look at the test. What I’ve learned over the last two years studying how airlines can claim chemicals in our uniform are safe is that it’s really easy to skew data in order to make it look like something is safe because nobody’s pays attention or cares…until it’s too late.
A few months ago I had an interesting conversation with the secretary general of Oeko-Tex, a company that tests chemicals in everyday products for safety, about the new American Airlines uniform. About midway through our conversation after I shared what I knew about testing and safety standards and how companies skew data to make things seem safer than they really are, I heard the general secretary of Oeko-Tex sigh. Then, he said, “Americans don’t care about safety.”
His voiced softened a little as he went on to explain why Europeans are different. Ever since that moment I think about what he shared whenever I read something in the news about a product making people sick. Like, asbestos in makeup for young girls or cadmium in pajamas made for children or the FAA refusing to ground an airplane that crashed due to the fact that it’s safe, even though they have no idea why the planes crashed, because in America things are considered safe without testing. And when things are tested, it’s usually the company that profits from the product that is in charge of testing. A conflict of interest, don’t you think?
There’s so many things that need to change in the airline industry: Toxic uniforms, fume events (bleed air), whatever caused the 737 Max to crash. They all seem to have one thing in common: Cost Cutting. Take that back, two things in common: Cost cutting and a malfunctioning FAA. Three things: Cost cutting, a malfunctioning FAA and airlines who are a little too confident that they can get away with reckless behavior.
This brings us to the anonymous reporting system mentioned in some news stories about the Lion Air crash in connection to how some pilots had claimed they felt there could be a problem with the aircraft. This anonymous reporting system is used by whistleblowers to share important information about safety concerns. I knew right away which anonymous reporting system they were talking about because it’s the same anonymous reporting system I often encourage coworkers to use, not just because it’s anonymous, but because all reports are entered into a public database, which means airlines can’t make the information disappear the way they do with other airline reporting systems.
The Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) was established by NASA to address issues in the aviation industry. What makes this system special is we can report safety concerns anonymously. This is important because most airline employees are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their job. They’re afraid to make waves simply by demanding a safe place to work.
American Airlines is the perfect example of how an airline punishes workers for refusing to work an unsafe aircraft. I mean safe aircraft because at the time American claimed that the planes were safe, even though countries around the world had grounded the fleet. After the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), informed its union membership they could use the “fear of flying” procedure if they didn’t feel safe working a 737 Max flight, American Airlines pushed back by refusing to pay flight attendants who claimed they didn’t feel safe to work.
If that wasn’t enough, they also made it clear that anyone who felt unsafe to fly and missed trip would also get a point on their attendance record. Probably doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but 10 points and we’re fired.
Somebody on Twitter tweeted to me that if his crew felt safe flying, he felt safe flying. I wanted to tell him all about the point system that’s designed to get rid of problems by getting rid of the people who speak out about problems, people who refuse to work on potential problem aircraft. See, if we don’t go to work, the passengers might notice, so it’s important to make sure the crew shows up. But I couldn’t explain all that in a single tweet.
By the way, firing higher-paid flight attendants is another way airlines save money and make problems disappear. That’s why our new attendance policy is a concern, especially when you take into account that toxins in our NEW uniforms and the bleed air on our NEW planes with the NEW engines are making people sick. First they make you sick and then they fire you for being sick, but that’s OK because they can hire someone NEW to make sick, someone NEW to pretend all the NEW crap is great. Cost cutting to the extreme.
So yeah, I have to agree with the General Secretary of Oeko-Tex. Americans don’t care about safety. Americans care about money. Which is why I was not surprised to see Trump get involved. It’s all about the money, and avoiding liability. Although, I do agree with Trump on one point that he made: older planes are better planes. All that technology is a problem, especially when I’m working in the business class cabin and spend more time trying to fix videos than I do serving drinks and food.
It’s important for you to know, at least it’s important for me that you know, in my 20 years as a flight attendant I can count on one hand the number of reports I’ve filed with the FAA. Before the new uniform and all the new planes, I never even thought about filing a report. I couldn’t even imagine having a problem so big I’d have to contact the FAA not once, not twice but multiple times. This is proof that a lot has changed over the last few years and it’s not for the better.
I have no idea if the FAA always ignored us. What I do know is there are quite a few serious issues that need to be addressed by the FAA it’s simply not happening. Which is why I wasn’t surprised that it took three days for America to join the rest of the world in grounding the 737 Max.
Americans don’t care about safety.
Take that back, Americans do care about safety when they know they’re unsafe. Problem is Americans put too much trust in brand names and government organizations whose job it is to protect us.