The Plight of the Flight Attendant

When I was a kid, we flew Olympic Airways (now known as Olympic Airlines) to Greece. Back then flight attendants were mainly female, and known as stewardesses. Most of them looked like models. The Olympic Airways slogan was, “Please – no dancing in the aisles.”  Prior to passengers boarding the plane, I had an image of the stewardesses dancing a Kalamatianos (traditional Greek dance) on the aircraft, because they loved their job so much.

What a glamorous job! I thought.

As I got older, I became wiser.

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Instead of dancing in the aisles, it turns out that many aircraft personnel (including pilots) head towards a bar or any business that sells alcohol after a long day’s work. Many airline attendants suffer from depression, and other mental health disorders.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, alcoholism deaths were 2.5 times higher and deaths from suicide were 1.5 times greater among flight attendants than the overall populace.

In an interview for Cosmopolitan, a flight attendant said that passengers often treat her like a “glorified waitress” when in fact airline attendants are highly trained aircraft specialists.

The airline attendant position is classified as a safety sensitive job.  That means that employees are not only responsible for their own safety, but also for the welfare of their clients. As a safety sensitive worker, airline attendants are prone to stress, which can lead to substance addiction.

Besides the taxing nature of the job, there are other factors that cause substance abuse and co-occurring disorders among airline personnel.

Airline attendants are only paid for actual flying time. So if their plane is stuck on a runway in JFK (or any other airport) for three hours, or if they experience a layover in a foreign city, the airline attendants don’t get paid for that stretch.  Additionally, sleeping in different hotels in strange cities causes feelings of loneliness.

Besides going to the hotel bar with co-workers as a means of socialization, some flight attendants rely on alcohol to help them catch forty winks. Flying through different time zones throws circadian rhythms off kilter. Having bizarre sleep hours can make a person feel like they are extras on The Walking Dead. Besides alcohol, some flight attendants use sleeping pills or prescription sedatives so that they can slumber in peace. Additionally, drugs that might be illegal in the US are legal in other countries. While security has become tighter since 9/11, a single-minded airline attendant will find a way to move drugs onto an airplane.

(Never underestimate the power of an addict who is determined to get their fix).

Due to strict drug and alcohol policies, flight attendants observe the minimum interval between alcohol consumption and the time that they are due on their next flight. This is known as the “bottle to throttle” rule.

Typically, airline attendants who drink are functional alcoholics. They are highly aware that if they fail a random drug and alcohol test, or if they are caught intoxicated while on the job they are immediately terminated from employment.

While rare and far in between, airline attendants who survive a plane crash suffer from PTSD. During the emergency, airline attendants are expected to maintain their composure, provide safety instructions and keep the situation under control. (It’s almost like being part of a medical team trying to resuscitate a patient who has displayed a cardiac flat-line. The team has to keep emotions in check, and focus on saving the patient.)

According to The Atlantic, its not just the tragedy and possible loss of life that triggers PTSD for airline attendants who have survived a plane crash, but also the realization that they are completely vulnerable while flying. News of a plane crash affects other airline attendants as well. Sometimes they knew the flight crew that was on that doomed flight. And if not, they might ask themselves, Will I be next?

It’s no surprise that aircraft professionals are susceptible to developing both substance abuse and co-occurring disorders.

By participating in a residential substance abuse and addiction treatment facility that offers dual diagnosis support, airline attendants will develop healthier coping tools.

Instead of heading to a bar after a hard day’s work, airline attendants can attend a 12-step meeting, call a sponsor or a peer in recovery or even do yoga and/or meditate in their hotel rooms.

Where am I going to find a 12-step meeting in Tokyo at 3 am?

I can’t promise that you will find a meeting at 3 am in Tokyo, but you might be pleasantly surprised at the other wonderful options that might surface. In AA, there is a saying. “There are no coincidences in AA.”

On their website, Birds of a Feather International (BOAF) offers a listing of international and national 12-step meetings (or nests) for aircraft personnel. Some of these meetings take place inside offices at airport terminals. BOAF also shares a story about Grace, a newly sober flight attendant who went to a drug rehab after her boss discovered that she suffered from alcoholism. After Grace completed outpatient treatment, she went back to work. One day, after she departed from a plane at LAX, she had a strong craving for alcohol. Grace began to walk towards the airport bar. Her spinning mind told her to get a drink, and that no one would find out. Beneath that tormented thought, a calmer voice, (call it intuition), told her to stop by the airport pager. She followed her intuition. Grace picked up the pager and asked, “”Will you please page Friends of Bill W?” She saw an empty gate. “To come to gate 12?”

A few seconds later, there was an announcement over the paging system. “Will friends of Bill W. please come to gate 12?”

“Will friends of Bill W. please come to gate 12?”

About 15 people showed up at that gate. A few passengers left their boarding lines and even missed their flights so that they could help Grace. While Grace, and those passengers were probably miles away from their residences, the meeting by Gate 12 provided them with peace, serenity and fellowship.

There is a Buddhist saying. “Peace in my heart. Peace in my soul. Wherever I’m going. I’m already home.”

If you are an airline professional, and seek help for alcoholism and/or drug addiction, please do not hesitate to call us. At Cycles of Change Recovery Services, we offer comprehensive evidence-based treatment for substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, along with 12-step facilitation. We also work with many Employment Assistance Programs (EAPs) to help impaired professionals achieve sobriety, and learn how to live a happy life in recovery.

We look forward to your call.


BOAF MISCELLANEOUS. “A Flights Attendant’s Story.” 2014. 

“Health Concerns for Flight Attendants.” National Institute for     Occupational Safety and Health (NOSH).          ion_FINAL.pdf

Pardes, Arielle. “12 Things I wish I Knew Before I Became a Flight      Attendant.” Cosmopolitan. 26 January 2016.  things-i-wish-i-knew/

Pleva, Amanda. “Booze Crews: The Airline Industry’s Drinking   Problem. Flyertalk. 13 December 2016.          industrys-drinking-problem.html

Rosen, Rebecca J. “The Trauma of Working for an Airline during a      Disaster.” The Atlantic.  22 July 2014.          particular-trauma-of-working-for-an-airline-during-a-        disaster/374791/

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