Program Helps Flight Attendants Handle Stress of Job

Hotline provides space for them to discuss difficult situations and passengers.

ByABC News
November 14, 2012, 1:16 AM

Nov. 14, 2012 — -- The flight attendant's job has changed drastically in the past 10 years, with the stress level skyrocketing, as demonstrated by some of their own caught-on-tape, airborne freak outs.

This past June, American Eagle flight attendant Jose Serrano roughly invited passengers to deplane in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

"If you have balls to want to get off, I'll let you get off. Get off," he said into the flight PA system.

Then there was the 2010 case of Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater, who grabbed a beer from his airplane's galley, cursed out the aircraft and bolted through the plane's emergency exit at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, intentionally deploying the emergency slide to disembark.

"Due to 9/11, the job has become more stressful, because when passengers get on they're already stressed," Sheila Dail, a US Airways flight attendant, told ABC News.

Dail, a 30-year veteran, suffered her own traumatic and incredibly stressful day back in 2009 aboard the "Miracle on the Hudson" flight that crash landed in New York's Hudson River.

"There was a shudder; the plane shuddered," she said. "A few minutes later, we heard, 'This is the captain. Brace yourselves for impact.'"

Dail was unable to sleep for days following the experience and found she had nobody to talk to about her frightful flight. Dail's wish that she had someone to call drove her to set up a new peer-to-peer hotline called CIRP (Critical Incident Response Program). The hotline now is in its second year, using 46 volunteers to answer flight attendant crisis calls at all hours.

"We help people deal with death on board, serious illness on board," Dail said. "We have medical equipment to use ... security issues, weather issues, turbulence, emergency situations in the cockpit that require an emergency landing."

Incident reports show stress also comes from passengers "demanding drinks and cussing," according to the Association of Flight Attendants.

In one instance, a report said that a passenger "did some karate moves ... then rushed at her with his hands out in a choking way."

Susan Gilliam became part of the CIRP air team after an emergency landing made her afraid to fly.

"Sometimes, I'd turn around and just go back home and say it wasn't meant to be," said Gilliam, a US Airways Flight Attendant. "I used all of my sick time."

Trying to recover from anger and mood swings were difficult to accomplish alone.

"I thought I was strong enough to do it on my own, but I wasn't," Gilliam said.

Doug Parker, the CEO of US Airways, told ABC News that although pilots and flight attendants have trained for years for the stresses and traumatic events that can occur on a flight, it can "still be a traumatic event when it actually happens."

The CIRP program allows US Airways flight attendants to confidentially speak to another flight attendant after a traumatic event.

"They have a peer out there that they're able to talk to and be able to deal with it rather than telling them to go back out there and fly again," Parker said. "This program offers the flight attendants this opportunity to deal with that better and we're really happy it's in place."