There’s no question that social media has affected the way we fly—it’s become a direct connection between passengers and airlines. Before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, passengers had to deal with a lot of red tape to share their experiences. Today, all it takes is 140 characters (or less) for passengers to air their grievances and frustrations and document, well, everything and anything that happens on a plane. But the constant presence of cell phones and endless access to wireless during flights has had another effect: social media has changed the way flight attendants do their jobs.
“Flight attendants have a love/hate relationship with social media,” says Emily Witkop, a veteran flight attendant. “Someone instantly tweets how you are a super stew. Or terrible … Someone takes your picture and bashes you and your airline for making them late,” continues Witkop. “It’s helpful on some forums to get instant clarification to work or situational questions throughout the day. But we also have a social media policy where we can be disciplined at work if something that was posted negatively reflects upon the company. So there’s good and bad.”
Indeed. Here, Yahoo! Travel looks at the bad, the good, and even the ugly.
The Bad: Flight attendants can’t afford to have a bad day—or moment for that matter.
With the ubiquitous use of social media on planes, “Now, when things start to get a little out of control, I feel like I need to force a smile so when the video goes viral everyone’s not pointing out the nasty-looking flight attendant,” says Heather Poole, flight attendant and author of Cruising Altitude: Tales of Crash Pads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers. “See, they’re all bitchy! They never smile.”
Abbie Unger, a veteran flight attendant, author, and founder of the Facebook Group Flight Attendant Career Connection, agrees. “I know sometimes flight attendants are nervous that a conversation with a passenger could be taken out of context or even just catching them at a bad moment could ruin their career,” she says.
But there are new job perks that social media provides, too.
The Good: They get positive attention, some extra help, and lots of networking opportunities.
A pleasant surprise when it comes to social media in the skies is that flight attendants who get it right can now become virtual rock stars. Southwest flight attendant Martha “Marty” Cobb became a hit this April when her hilarious safety speech went viral. Attendant David Holmes hit a high note when he got passengers clapping and beat-boxing as he rapped his way through the safety instructions. (We think it’s a pretty genius way of getting people to pay attention.) And remember Steven Slater? The JetBlue flight attendant who went nuts before grabbing a brew and escaping down the jet’s emergency chute? Even his nutty behavior made him an Internet hero with a chorus of voices singing his praises and YouTube videos dedicated to his comical meltdown.
In some ways, Twitter and Facebook have made the flight attendant’s job easier—like by functioning as a customer service portal. It used to be that attendants had to answer questions about lost baggage or long waits on the tarmac. Today, if passengers have a complaint, they just tweet about it.
“Airlines are pretty quick to respond, because in the past the backlash has been worse when they don’t,” says Shawn Kathleen. “They want to keep their customers, and keep them happy. They also don’t want bad publicity. Especially since it can go viral really quickly.” And with flight delays and connection information readily available online, passengers can look up the information rather than bothering the working crew repeatedly.
Being connected has also become a valuable resource. Unger’s Flight Attendant Career Connection Facebook group has skyrocketed to more than 7,000 members in less than a year. “Statistically, it’s easier to get into Harvard than to become a flight attendant,” she says. “Last year, Delta had 100,000 applications for 450 jobs. It’s very, very competitive.” So on FACC, Unger provides tips and coaching, posts the latest jobs, and has built an encouraging community for those in the industry and those aspiring to be.
“There has never been a time when you can be so prepared for an interview because you know what to expect by talking with people through social media,” Unger says. “I always think it’s interesting when someone going on a job interview will post pictures with two different hairstyles or lipstick shades to see what other members of the group think. It’s cool to have 80 people weighing in and encouraging you as you head into an interview.”
But as is usually the case with social media, not everything is lipstick and rainbows.
The Ugly: Attendants can reveal the seedy side of flying.
Now, just like everyone else, flight attendants can vent and reveal the truth about a sometimes-trying profession. Flight attendants can turn their own cell phones back on rude, inconsiderate, and gross behavior by travelers. Many of the photos on PassengerShaming.com, with its pictures and video clips of passengers being called out for bad behavior, are submitted from anonymous crew members.
“Five or six years ago, I started a website called ‘Rants of a Sassy Stew’ where I would rant about passenger behavior,” says Shawn Kathleen, a former flight attendant and blogger. “Then, I started getting so many photos of passengers acting like idiots I started PassingerShaming.com.”
In less than a year, it has generated more than 12,000 followers on Twitter, 180,000 on Instagram, and 217,000 friends on Facebook. “Social media has become a tool for all people to voice their frustrations,” she says. “Not just those who pay for their tickets.”
Ultimately, social media has had a positive impact on the industry and on how flight attendants do their jobs. “Social media offers another level of accountability for everybody,” says Unger. Of course, where it goes from here is still up in the air.
—Caitlin M. Kiernan, Yahoo! Travel
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