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The Anxious Skies
The pilots are supposed to be the gritty guys on a commercial plane. Flight attendants, they're the chatty cart pushers, the cheerful aisle monitors, the butt of a dozen Saturday Night Live sketches staler than the pretzels on a transcontinental trip. It's the difference between The Right Stuff and Coffee, Tea or Me? But tragedy has a way of smashing cliches, and the folks who used to be called stewardesses and stewards have a new mission. Where once they quieted raucous infants, now they must assure passengers--those relative few who are still flying--of the safety of air travel. They must also try to convince themselves.
"It's probably safer now than it's ever been," says Scott Stephenson, an 18-year veteran with American Airlines, one of the two carriers hijacked during attacks on New York City and Washington. "But it's also more intense than it was before. We're told to let security know if we see the slightest thing that looks suspicious. I'm glad they're doing it, because people are still packing funky things like steak knives in their carry-on bags."
On Thursday, Stephenson, 39, was getting ready to leave his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to catch a plane to Boston's Logan Airport, where several terrorists had begun their deadly missions on Sept. 11. His jet-setting career had turned grim, as evidenced by his colleagues' new insignias. Some were wearing badges with the names of all the cockpit and cabin crew who perished. Others had black bands placed over their wings. "We still do have people who are fearful and have taken time off. It's time to come back. They might even feel better being back. The rest of us are upset, but we don't want this to get the best of us. If we decide to leave our jobs, we don't want it to be on the terrorists' terms."
Fate has whacked the corps of flight attendants twice: first with the Sept. 11 murders, then with deep layoffs planned because of the dip in travel. American's flight attendants have been working without a contract for 2 1/2 years; just recently, they voted a new agreement into place. Some of those brave enough to stay at work will not be allowed to.
In these parlous days, they have become a hardy band of brothers and sisters--both at American and at United, which also had two flights hijacked. Now there's a quiet camaraderie of combat veterans when they see one another in airports: a nod, a faint smile. "You've got a nation mourning, but people are feeling good about being together and going to work," Stephenson says.
Lately, the passengers are muted--staying in their seats, keeping to themselves--and appreciative. "They say thank you," Stephenson notes. "They give you a pat on the shoulder, and tears well up in our eyes." When the plane lands safely, he sees a look of relief on their faces. They must recognize the grace and courage of workers they so long took for granted. They should also recognize the flight attendants' sense of humor--which is to say, a sense of proportion. "I was talking to other flight attendants," Stephenson says, "and one woman said, 'On my flight a passenger got a little snippy.' So things could soon be back to normal: people being their rude selves." --By Richard Corliss. Reported by Jeffrey Ressner
A Crisis of Faith