Mostly Air

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Self-defense training for U.S. airline flight attendants is lax, despite 9-11

Our first-class galley flight attendant and our purser have been stabbed. And we can't get into the cockpit. The door won't open."

American Airlines flight attendant Betty Ong's recorded phone call from aboard American Airlines Flight 11 still sends chills up the spine, nearly four years after the plane was flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center on 9-11. But lost in the horror of subsequent events is the message in her words: Flight attendants were the first to confront the hijackers, and the first to die.

Some flight attendant union officials say that self-defense and security training that could help prevent a similar attack is still inadequate and outdated--and may not have met federal hourly requirements, at least until laxer rules were issued in February by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

"We saw the pilots get guns and saw the cockpit doors reinforced, and we saw the flight attendants get left alone in the back," says Thom McDaniel, president of Transportation Workers' Union Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants. McDaniel is also a working flight attendant and goes through the Dallas-based airline's recurring security training every year.

"To say that it was minimal would probably be exaggerating," McDaniel says. "We probably spend more time on lunch than we do on self-defense. In fact, I know we do."

McDaniel says that in the years since 9-11, two hours of Southwest's daylong recurring yearly training have been devoted to security, while federal regulations prompted by the November 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act explicitly mandated at least four hours.

Yet even the two-hour figure is deceptive. McDaniel says his training consisted of less than an hour of class lecture and a 20-minute take-home video. Lonny Glover, an attendant for American Airlines and an official with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, offers a similar account of the Fort Worth-based airline's training.

According to TSA, the agency's officials assigned to each airline did have some discretion as to the hourly requirement, but the agency did not say whether reductions had actually been approved.

Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart won't discuss the training program other than saying, "Whatever the government requires, we require a lot more." American spokesman Tim Wagner offers a similar statement: "We always comply with government regulation."

That may be closer to the truth now that new Transportation Security Administration rules have gone into effect. Issued in February, the rules actually reduce the hourly requirement by half, from eight hours for new employees and four hours of yearly recurring training to four and two, respectively. John Moran, TSA's assistant administrator for workforce performance, says the reduction shouldn't be misinterpreted.

"We're concerned with the content and the quality of the training," Moran says. "The hour issue is sort of secondary." He says that under the new rules, TSA personnel who oversee air carriers' training are now required to be trainers themselves. Curriculum requirements are also more specific.

Training questions aren't limited to American and Southwest. Valerie Walker, chair of the Association of Flight Attendants' Security Committee, goes through training as a United Airlines flight attendant. She says the classroom instruction is cursory at best, and the take-home movie is even worse. "They called it the 'Chip and Dale video' because you would be fast-forwarding through it so much that the voices would be [high-pitched] like that," Walker says.

Cabin crew training may be the least of TSA's worries as the agency awaits confirmation of its fourth director in three years. Charges of inefficiency and lax enforcement have led to speculation that TSA may be radically restructured or even done away with entirely. Walker says such an outcome wouldn't be surprising given her experience with TSA as a union safety official. "They don't enforce anything," she says.

The details of what training flight attendants do receive are guarded by officials and attendants alike. "We don't talk about specifics of it because to do so would undermine the effect of that training," says American spokesman Wagner. A picture, however, can be gleaned from various sources.

Terrorist attacks are far from the only security threat flight attendants face; cases of "air rage" are much more common. Some of what is taught, such as basic self-defense and escape techniques, could apply to both, but other elements seem dated when viewed through the lens of 9-11. Southwest, for example, says its security training is heavily based on "verbal judo," a course in negotiation tactics.

"That's for the ones that say, 'I think I'm losing my mind--there's not enough fizz in my Coke,'" says Southwest's Stewart. "There should always be a way to defuse the situation."

But union officials argue that the training relies too much on the cooperative philosophy that developed in response to hijackings to Cuba in the 1970s. "Back then, the thinking was that the plane would still be used as a mode of transportation, not a weapon," says Michael Massoni, a flight attendant and the safety coordinator for the Southwest union.

Moran of TSA says that even under the new rules, the program still sticks to defensive tactics. "We're not training them to say, 'Hey, that guy in Row 3 looks a little hinkey to me, I'm going to go up and question him,' and yank him out of his seat and put him in an arm bar or something," Moran says.

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