Any flight attendant will tell you that there’s something about being stuck in an aluminum tube 35,000 feet in the air that makes ordinary human beings behave in extraordinary ways. Excited baby-boomer vacationers toss back miniature bottles of hard liquor with reckless abandon like co-eds while toddlers wail over the coos of frustrated parents. First-class frequent fliers let their eyes, thoughts, and hands wander around the cabin while perfect strangers with elevated blood pressure fight passive-aggressive battles over elbow room. On any given day one airline passenger’s dream flight is another’s waking nightmare, and both are thoroughly chronicled and readily accessible for your perusing pleasure down here at sea level.
Welcome to the cabin-pressurized otherworld of Flight Attendant Internet.
“Air travel breaks passengers out from their normal lives,” Heather Poole, a flight attendant who’s written a best-selling book about her time in the skies, told BuzzFeed News of the glut of air travel content floating around social media. “It’s an extraordinary circumstance for most and so they tend to write and tweet and Facebook more than normal. Plus you're anonymous on the plane and that anonymity allows you to be your worst self.”
Among the delights of spying on the world above from the comfort of a laptop below: unexpected celebrity encounters, scores of ill-mannered and barefootedly belligerent passengers, juicy flight crew confessions, pilots and crew "after dark," exotic and mundane layover locales, valuable tips on how to coexist with others in a fast-moving aluminum tube, and endless numbers of wing-framed sunsets. It was, for my purposes as an infrequent flier, an engrossing window into the unfamiliar inner workings of a somewhat familiar world. Also: pilots after dark!
But unlike Twitter’s more popular gathered masses and clubs, Flight Attendant Twitter wasn’t flooded with incessant chirps and jockeying for attention or even all that concerned with building followings. Few flight attendants seem conscious they’re speaking to an audience; very few brands are being built or cultivated. The tweets are often, in the purest terms, about sharing an experience with one’s peers, regardless of outside interlopers who might listen in. For those in the air, however, the feeds are filling a larger, more important need: allowing flight attendants to vent, brag, search for sympathy, and chart the contours of an often misunderstood profession.
“At my job there are millions of different kinds of people who walk into our lives,” Poole said of the ephemeral nature of airline service. As Poole and the flight attendants were quick to note, harried passengers, overworked crew, high altitudes, and tight quarters create perfect conditions for conflict, which in recent years has been exacerbated by in-flight internet access. As a result, it’s now common practice for passengers to complain about flight attendants to airline Twitter accounts. “Search flight attendant on Twitter and it’s just crazy what people are saying about us on there,” Poole said. “And if the slightest thing goes wrong, people grab their phones and get ready to film in the hopes that it might go viral.”
For these flight attendants, Twitter and Facebook are a way to reclaim their own narrative. They tweet about couples flirting, philandering, and falling in love in-flight. They roll their eyes at bloviating business class bros. They vent about stubborn passengers and tight layovers and note that if you’re having an awful delay-ridden garbage day of travel then they probably are, too. Like most social media, it’s a highly humanizing experience. “It's a weird job but Twitter has been great. I feel like it helps to bridge the gap. Passengers can see how we do what we do it and maybe on their next flight they’ll be nicer, not so quick to judge, and a bit more understanding,” Poole said.
When that doesn’t work, there’s always public shaming, showcased across the many wildly successful "Passenger Shaming" social media accounts and blogs run by former flight attendant Shawn Kathleen. Originally started as an outlet to post the occasional outrageous photo or video of a gross, rude, or unruly passenger, Kathleen found her inbox inundated with photos from outraged flight attendants and travelers complaining of everything from dirty diapers stuffed in seat back pockets and surreptitious in-flight porn viewing to feet — yards upon yards of dirty, hairy, sweaty feet.
Unwittingly, Kathleen and her legion of anonymous contributors are cobbling together a jarring but terribly effective online air travel etiquette manual from real-world examples of egregious passenger behavior.
“It’s ... great to see people reading all these stories because now there’s photographic evidence that flight attendants are not making this shit up. It's right here in front of you,” Kathleen said. “Messages come in every so often that say, ‘Oh god, I used to do that and now I feel so bad! I won't do that again.’ And, to me, that’s a big victory for air travel etiquette.”
The most important conversations, though, happen behind closed doors. There, inside large, protected Facebook groups, flight attendants gather to commiserate, mentor younger workers, and, most important, organize, however informally, against their respective airlines. “I have a group of close to 10,000 people, which is made up of flight attendants, gate agents, mechanics, airline employees, and pilots, of course. It's a place for discussions because, when you're on that airplane, it's not like I can call a manager over from 35,000 feet,” Kathleen said.
The decentralized nature of the job — most flight attendants work with a different crew every few days — also makes it difficult for flight attendants to form a united front on major issues like unionization or worker contract negotiations. Private Facebook groups — which sometimes require prospective members to submit valid forms of airline ID before joining — can provide a safe haven for fierce debates or a new channel through which to share information about upcoming votes, mergers, and internal airline business that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. “For the first time ever, we have a lot of power over the airlines,” Poole said of the private Facebook groups. “In the past, it would have been really easy for the airlines to bully us or talk us into a decision that only benefits the airline. There's power in numbers and that's been so great for us.”
Of course the freedom of social media from the tyranny of the airlines has a real price for those not savvy enough to properly wield it. Airlines are wary of inappropriate flight attendant confessions and routinely patrol social media to ferret out offending accounts. In May, a Spirit Airlines flight attendant was fired for tweeting a photo of herself posing inside one of her aircraft’s jet engines from the tarmac. Some flight attendants said that airline employees often try to infiltrate the private flight attendant Facebook groups, especially those that tend to be hotbeds for union discussions. “Thanks to technology people get to see more of our jobs than ever before, which is great but it freaks the airlines out,” Poole said. “ I worry that some guy with a clipboard will meet me at my flight and that will be it, all because I posted some picture,” she said.
But for those deft enough to navigate the pitfalls and private groups, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the social web at large aren’t just entertainment or an escape, they’re deeply empowering. “Sometimes it’s just nice to be able let people know that, ‘Hey, we don't just pour Coke up there,’” Kathleen said. “We go through a super-extensive training program with these jobs. We are the ones doing CPR during medical emergencies. We are the ones trained to fight fires, god forbid. But often that’s the furthest thing from a passenger’s mind when they walk onto the plane.”
For Kathleen and Poole and the thousands of flight attendants posting their musings to Twitter and Facebook from the sky, it’s an opportunity to feel like a part of a larger whole in a career where you rarely work with the same people twice. It’s an opportunity to tell outsiders that delayed flights keep crew members from their families too, and that flight attendants aren’t getting paid by the airlines until the cabin doors close. It’s a chance not just to share the madness of 35,000 feet, but to contextualize it. The result is a peek at what the social web does best: providing a window that’s all at once riveting, frustrating, heartening, deeply weird, and ultimately, profoundly humanizing.