Flight Attendants Reveal the Worst Flights They've Ever Worked
Speaking from experience as someone who travels six months out of the year, I’ll put my bad-flight stories up against almost anyone’s. Take, for example, a return flight from Mumbai with a layover in Istanbul. On the second leg of the flight, one carefree passenger decided it was the appropriate time to drop ecstasy. As life decisions go, this one ranked pretty low, though I’m sure in the moment our Mile High Raver was feeling quite the opposite. After he lovingly stroked his chagrined seat neighbors, he began to prance down the aisle and around the galleys. The flight attendants could only take so much of this revelry before they had to tackle him to the ground and inject his neck with a sedative.
This was not a great flight for me. I don’t think it ended up being a great flight for this passenger, either, as he was escorted off the plane at JFK in handcuffs. But this flight was unquestionably worse for the flight attendants.
Flight attendants have packed for more than their share of bad flights. By far. And unlike the rest of who get to complain, demand refunds, or be visibly terrified, flight attendants have to remain alert, stoic, and brave AF, even if they are just as annoyed, irate and/or terrified as you are. If you think you’ve been on a bad flight, trust me, they’ve got you topped. Flight attendants’ stories tend to fall into some broad general categories, all of which get even me spooked.
Admittedly, turbulence terrifies me. The fear is bad enough that I’ll white-knuckle the armrest while whispering a few Hail Marys. And I’m not even Catholic.
When air turns choppy -- perhaps when warm air is rising through cooler air, or a mountain range disrupts air currents -- the plane rises and falls, like a yacht on a heaving sea. It won’t knock a plane out of the sky, or even flip it. But in the moment, it can feel like the end of the world.
"I was flying from Miami to London, and while serving beverages in economy, we hit a few mild bumps," says one flight attendant with American Airlines. "It was nothing to be concerned about. After no bumps for about 30 seconds, all hell broke loose. We hit severe turbulence. My coworker and I were both tossed upwards, including our serving carts. I landed on both feet, much to my surprise, and I yelled at passengers to grab my arms to keep me grounded. Mother Nature tossed us around for about 30 seconds before the rocking and rolling subsided. I still don't know how I landed on my feet like a gymnast, because that situation could have been a really ugly, career-ending situation."
Air traffic (out of) control
Air traffic controllers have one of the most demanding jobs out there. Their schedules often result in chronic fatigue, which means they aren't always completely on their game for directing planes in and out of the sky. It's a stressful job, to say the least. A 2011 FAA report found that nearly two in 10 controllers had committed significant errors, like bringing planes too close together. More than six in 10 controllers said that they had fallen asleep or experienced a lapse of attention during their midnight shifts. So while air travel may be the safest form of travel, sometimes accidents do happen.
"In 2000, I was sitting in the rear of the aircraft in my jumpseat, going in for landing into SFO," says another American Airlines flight attendant. "About 10 seconds from landing, I looked out the window and saw the tail of a Cathay Pacific Airlines Boeing 747 crossing our path as we were landing.
"After no bumps for about 30 seconds, all hell broke loose."
“I remember the pilot pulled up so fast, I thought I was back in my Navy days,” the flight attendant continues. “The pilot didn't say a word for about a minute. A very long minute. Passengers were screaming, and the only thing that prevented me from screaming was I was pinned to the seat with such force it kept me silent. The pilot finally made an announcement and apologized for the severe maneuver, but that we had almost hit the aircraft, which crossed into our landing path without permission. Let's just say I had a series of cocktails when I arrived home."
The airsickness "domino effect"
While they might seem like a relic from the days of smaller planes, barf bags are not there for decoration. Airsickness can strike when eyes adjust to the stillness around you, and your brain is made aware that you are sitting still, but your inner ear, sensitive little bastard, knows that you are actually in motion.
You already know where this is headed.
"I have always been terrified of vomit," says a Delta Air Lines flight attendant. "I just. Can't. Do it. I was working a red-eye from Seattle to Atlanta and we hit some pretty rough air. Although the pilots tried their best to find a smoother route, they just couldn't. The roller coaster ride lasted about an hour. Before I knew it, a lady in the middle seat of the last row upchucked her dinner everywhere. That's when it all started. It was a domino effect. The entire last two rows of passengers were puking. It sounded like Jurassic Park."
The passengers from hell
Yeah, being a flight attendant is low-key one of the most hardcore customer-service jobs in America. And it goes well beyond mere air sickness. Sometimes, some very disturbed people just happen to be in the air, and in a confined flying cylinder, there’s not much to be done for them.
"We had just departed the gate from Los Angeles for New York and had begun the video safety demo," says a Virgin America flight attendant. "As it was playing, I see a woman climb over her seatmate into the aisle and was standing there, motionless. This is a no-no while we are moving on a taxiway, and especially during the safety demo."
The flight attendant rushed up the aisle to see what was happening. "The woman pointed to her seatmate shouting, ‘She's evil!’ over and over again," he continued. "I decided to reseat her in a row that was empty. This seemed to have calmed her down." Or so he thought.
"I made the mistake of trying to touch her to get her to calm down. Big mistake -- more beatings."
Just after liftoff, the same women rings her call light. "Very frantically, she tells me, 'I changed my later flight to this flight and my brother is picking me up. I need to tell him that I'm coming early.’" The flight attendant took her brother's contact information and had the captain call the ground to contact him. The flight attendant then noticed her staring out the window talking to herself.
"When I said, 'Ma'am?' she began screaming at the top her lungs 'YOU'RE EVIL!' and started beating me with her pillow. I was stunned and desperately trying to make her stop screaming. I made the mistake of trying to touch her to get her to calm down. Big mistake -- more beatings." Finally a woman flight attendant stepped in, but it didn't make much of a difference.
"I was about to call the captain to let him know we may have to turn around to LAX, when from the rear of the plane comes actress Maria Bello. From ER. She begins reciting the Lord's Prayer over and over until the woman calmed down."
"All I could do was keep the other passengers calm"
A passenger requires medical attention. It's an announcement that triggers a shiver of panic, followed by meerkat heads popping up to figure out who this passenger is. More often than not, multiple medical professionals hop to the scene. About one in every 600 flights involves a reported medical emergency (or so says the New England Journal of Medicine). The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center broke that down into 44,000 in-flight medical emergencies worldwide every year.
The most common problems include faintness, respiratory symptoms, and nausea or vomiting. Flight attendants can handle those, no prob. Then, there’s the other, more dreadful category.
"I remember the pilot pulled up so fast, I thought I was back in my Navy days."
"In July I was flying from London to Miami," says American Airlines flight attendant. "About 45 minutes before landing, the in-flight supervisors made an announcement requesting the assistance of medical personnel. A male passenger sitting in the business class cabin was complaining about chest pains and needed some assistance. The situation went from bad to worse." The flight crew began performing chest compressions on the passenger. The doctor and nurse came to assemble medical equipment. "All I could do was try to keep the other passengers calm as the medical team did their best."
The passenger didn’t make it. The flight attendant went through the motions on the rest of the flight and got home fine. Then: “The next day I was an emotional mess.”
Next time you consider what flight attendants go through on the job, remember: They’ve always got your back.