I‘ve worked as cabin crew for six years, and I’ve never been so exhausted. I’m not the kind of person who usually suffers with fatigue, but crew are facing catastrophic and sustained levels of understaffing. Despite what you might hear about the travel chaos facing hard-working families who just want to get away for a well earned half-term break, being asked to travel with hand luggage alone to try to alleviate the huge delays and cancellations, the pandemonium at Britain’s airports doesn’t affect passengers alone.
Crew members are flying more than ever. Our hours are longer, our schedule more gruelling and our pay a pittance. Working for airlines used to be about luxury and glamour. Now, many of us can’t even afford to live near the airports, so we drive for hours to get home after long-haul flights on dangerously little sleep. Crew members are so tired they are having accidents – closed social media groups are full of tips for staying awake at the wheel.
That level of fatigue is only sustainable for so long. Days and days of early starts followed by long-haul flights wear you down, so crew are calling in sick. There is a lot of bitterness and anger towards the airlines, who used Covid lockdowns as an excuse to lay off so many of us. Bosses have been offering us cash lump sums to recommend new members of staff – and we’ve heard of airlines dropping leaflets through doors to try to get anyone and everyone to apply for vacancies. But it’s proving such a challenge to get people to fill the jobs that our union has told us our airline is considering increasing pay for new recruits – which is a huge slap in the face for the rest of us. There is talk of going on strike.
We’re used to dealing with difficult passengers, but travel chaos has a nasty side effect. Customers are always more aggressive if they have a difficult time in the airport, and as cabin crew you’re the next person in a uniform they’re going to see. Recently, on one flight, a man chased me, shouting, down the galley after the captain announced delays would mean some passengers would miss their connecting flights.
Pressures on travel companies might have got worse post-pandemic, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for airlines. Government lockdowns were hard on the travel industry, but look how we’ve bounced back. Environmentalists might think people will start to fly less to combat the climate crisis, but in truth people are desperate to escape their troubles and have a little holiday. The current boom in demand just proves that. Airlines bosses were openly angry when the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said they needed to stop overselling flights and holidays that they wouldn’t be able to deliver, saying that they had not received enough help to recover from the pandemic. But from where I’m standing, I don’t see how this travel chaos is anyone’s fault but the airlines’ – when people are queuing up to spend their money, but they don’t have the product to satisfy that demand.
Brexit has definitely been a barrier to filling staff shortages – a lot of crew were from Europe. But the real obstacle to hiring is that many people don’t want to work for the pittance airlines are offering. Long gone are the days of the legacy crew on six figures. There’s a feeling among current employees that the pandemic was a convenient excuse to oust the last senior members on expensive contracts. My colleagues are angry, especially at the idea that new recruits may get more money. The incentive to bring others on board, too, has laughed people. We are wondering, if they have all this money sitting around, why they can’t pay us more?
Post-pandemic, there has been a shift in the way we view work, people are more discerning about what kind of jobs they are willing to accept, and at what cost. But it’s not just about the money. The working conditions you will be facing are not a secret any more. People want more from life.