THE BLOG

A Plea To The TSA: In Defense Of Flight Attendants

Mar 12, 2013 | Updated May 12, 2013

On March 6, John C. Pistole, administrator for the Transportation Security Administration, announced that beginning on April 25, small pocket knives, souvenir baseball bats, golf clubs, lacrosse and hockey sticks, pool cues and ski poles will once more be allowed in airline cabins, because these things will provide little threat to pilots behind the locked cockpit door.

Flight attendants from many airlines -- and their unions -- are incredulous at this shortsighted policy, and are saying with one voice, "What about us, the first responders on the front lines? And the last line of defense! What are you thinking?"

Captain James Ray, spokesman for 4,000 US Airways pilots, says, "Pilots have a bulletproof door that stands between us and the passengers. The flight attendants have nothing."

As a former Pan Am flight attendant for 20 years, a psychoanalyst/psychotherapist for the past 27 years and a frequent Huffington Post blogger, I am hoping that officials in the TSA will weigh my words carefully, considering that I bring a great deal of experience to this subject.

I have written often about the monumental upheaval in the airline industry over the past 30 years, as well as the emotional consequences of these changes on airline employees (See Cracks in the Cover-Up). I have also written about the effects of the trauma of 9/11 on airline personnel (The Effects of the Trauma of 9/11), and have personally worked with many airline personnel from various airlines.

As a Pan Am flight attendant from 1965 to 1986, I became aware of terrorism in the late 1960s and 1970s, when we all lost friends in terrifying events, long before most of the world was even aware that it was happening. Most Americans have no memory of the 707 that was blown up on the tarmac in Rome in 1973, killing many and traumatizing others for life. Nor do they remember (in 1972) the Pan Am plane that was commandeered in Amsterdam and flown to the Egyptian desert, where it was blown to bits just minutes after the last passenger exited from the slides. What Americans do remember, however, is the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

I know what it's like to scan passenger's faces, wondering if this is the terrorist who wants to kill you and those in your care. It changes the way a flight attendant views his or her job, and in a way, changes the way he or she views the world.

I was always very aware, as all flight attendants are, that the most important role that a flight attendant has, besides ensuring the safety of passengers, is to create the illusion of the flight crew's emotional invincibility. In other words, to reinforce the denial of death. On board every aircraft are passengers who wonder how in the world this huge machine can actually fly. Moreover, they depend upon the comfort of knowing they have a fearless and confident crew taking care of them. Not always an easy task for the flight crew.

This recent ruling by the TSA is flawed for many reasons. They state that the reason for the change is to align its rules with International Civil Aviation Organization standards and to allow security officers to focus their efforts on finding higher threat items, such as explosives. Since U.S. airlines and Israeli airlines are the most vulnerable to attack, I don't see why they should lower our standards.

Mr. Pistole says that, "the TSA will keep the ban on box cutters and razor blades, because there's too much emotion." I wonder just what is the difference between a box cutter and pocket knife, when a person is determined to kill someone in that same manner? Almost all flight attendants have those horrifying images in their minds. I wonder if he has considered how many flight attendants will be re-traumatized by the thought of passengers with knives or whose nightmares will resurface with this new threat. Flight attendants can put on a very brave front, but after all, they are human too.

And then there's the problem of drunk and/or mentally ill passengers. I can imagine what they could do with a baseball bat or a broken pool cue. Why does anybody really need to bring athletic equipment on board, when there never is enough space for the things that passengers really need?

Perhaps this new policy has been designed to make the lives of TSA staff easier. I don't understand how this would be true, because the agents will still have to look at each blade to make sure it is the length permitted under the new guidelines. Are the rules in place only to deal with the safety of the aircraft and the pilots, and not the cabin crew or passengers?

When you see airline crews walking across the terminal with their suitcase on wheels, just know that they are also carrying another kind of baggage. There is always the possibility of a hijacking, a bomb on the plane or unruly and violent passengers on board. Most people who go about their daily lives and work don't have to be hyper-vigilant about terrorists. They have not had friends or colleagues murdered by political or religious extremists. They don't have to imagine ways in which they can protect their own lives and those who depend upon them in the air.

Please, TSA, re-consider this new policy that was put in place without consulting airline employees. It can have far-reaching and very damaging emotional effects.