Fight Or Flight Attendant with Sara Nelson | Crooked Media
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September 01, 2021
What A Day
Fight Or Flight Attendant with Sara Nelson

In This Episode

  • The FAA had to investigate more than 600 incidents involving unruly passengers in the first half of 2021, which is already double the number from the previous two years combined. Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, joins us to discuss how flight attendants, as front-line workers, are dealing with these people.
  • And in headlines: over one million people still don’t have power in Louisiana following Hurricane Ida, Texas Republicans passed their restrictive voting bill, the U.S. Forest Service closed every national forest in California because of wildfires, and video game streamers go dark today for #ADayOffTwitch.
  • WAD is taking a long break for the holiday, and we’ll be back on Wednesday, September 8th





Gideon Resnick: It is Wednesday, September 1st. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Priyanka Aribindi: And I am Priyanka Aribindi, and this is What A Day, where we are sad to announce that due to weather we will no longer be performing our set at Bonnaroo.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, we were going to be podcasting from a vacant Porta Potty in a parking lot during Lizzo’s set, but unfortunately not anymore.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. If you bought a ticket, any, anyone out there, I’m sure you’ll be refunded.


Gideon Resnick: On today’s show, officials tell hurricane Ida evacuees not to return home just yet while the recovery effort continues. Plus, some Twitch streamers are on a one-day strike today to protest harassment.


Priyanka Aribindi: But first, with Labor Day just around the corner, we wanted to bring you another conversation about the labor movement in America. It’s usually a big travel weekend, although the number of air passengers right now is down 14% compared to 2019. That is thanks to the Delta variant. But in general, this summer has been a busy time for people to fly, and Gideon, the skies have not been so friendly.


[montage of airplane announcements about, and yelling by, unruly passengers]


Gideon Resnick: Yikes.


Priyanka Aribindi: You can’t see us right now, but like or cringing, head in hands, like it’s not, that’s not great.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I’m distressed. You know that clips of a flight are not that great when most of the words are being bleeped out. That’s not a positive sign. So to this point, the FAA says that in the first half of 2021, it has had to investigate more than 600 incidents involving unruly passengers. That number is double the previous two years combined. And it shouldn’t shock WAD listeners to know that most of the reported incidents, over two thirds in fact, involve people who refuse to comply with the federal mandate.


Priyanka Aribindi: Not shocking, but not great. It really does make me feel bad for flight attendants because they are the front-line workers who throughout all of this have been dealing with these people and everybody else who is going through airports. So we wanted to find out a little bit more about what they’ve been going through because it cannot be easy. Joining us today is Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Sara, it is so great to have you back on What A Day.


Sara Nelson: Thank you for having me and for talking about this. It helps all of us out in the friendly skies.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, we hope so. So I just want to start off with some of the stories that you’ve been hearing from the members of your union about what they’ve been dealing with on these flights.


Sara Nelson: We took a survey recently of all of our members, and what we got in return was that 85% of them have experienced an unruly passenger event in 2021.


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Sara Nelson: One in five of the flight attendants said they had experienced a physical altercation either directly with a passenger, or passenger on passenger. And then 60% of the incidents also were some kind of racial or gender or ethnic slur that’s included as well. So there are some workers who are, you know, having an even harder time than others in these conditions.


Gideon Resnick: That is so crazy. So why do we think that this is happening, like with so much more frequency? Is it just the the mask issue? Is it people having been cooped up or something?


Sara Nelson: Well, the first biggest problem has been the inconsistency in communication. 18 months people have been told conflicting stories about what we’re dealing with and how best to deal with it. That makes anxiety rise. And then there’s all the stressors of this pandemic because it’s been really hard on people. It’s been hard on people economically. It’s been hard on people having lost people. Everything has been disrupted. And all of those things make it harder for people to just function normally?


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. It’s also it’s really helpful just to hear, you know, all of those factors that you just presented because there’s so much at play here. And something that I’ve been seeing a lot of stories about, and I’m sure everyone listening has as well, is stories about these flight attendants taking self-defense classes and doing things like that to feel safe and protected. Is that extreme for right now? Is that necessary? How are you just in the union kind of feeling about that?


Sara Nelson: You know, actually, if you can believe it, you just got me a little choked up because I’m worried about the people that I represent. And I’m a flight attendant myself and I’ve taken this course. This course was designed after September 11th. It was supposed to be a mandatory course that was in place and it was supposed to be to help us deal with this new security threat. Not so much about what we’re seeing on the planes today, where people are acting out, you know, refusing to comply with basic safety instructions, or drinking too much in the airport, and alcohol is a major factor. So the dynamics have really changed and it’s never been more important for flight attendants to take this class. I mean, there’s cable news personalities who are calling flight attendants Nazis, saying that, you know, we’re the bad people for enforcing the rules that we’re required—that we don’t set—but we’re required to enforce to keep everyone safe. And so as the targets, flight attendants are saying, I’m going to voluntarily go to this class. And I’ll tell you they’re signing up in droves right now because it’s a skill that you need in our workplace right now, unfortunately.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that is so awful. I wasn’t even aware that those classes were the same thing as you described it. So several airlines like United and Frontier are mandating now that all employees be vaccinated or they face regular testing. Last week, the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, that seems to be paving the way for more businesses to consider mandates. So how could that move by the FDA impact the industry more broadly?


Sara Nelson: I think that the move by the FDA to fully-approve the Pfizer vaccine is really going to be a game changer. Our union has really taken a neutral stance on this because it’s the employer’s job to make those mandates, not the union. So that’s really where we’ve been set up, and we’ve been encouraging people to get vaccinated. And there’s going to be the exception and we’ll be there to support our members who need that exception. But we’re really pushing to make sure that we end this pandemic by getting the vaccine distributed around the world and getting as many people to take it as possible. And this FDA approval makes a huge difference


Gideon Resnick: On the organizing front, when all these incidents are happening over the course of the past six months to a year or to 18 months, how are people in the union responding when it comes to organizing and when it comes to recognizing bargaining power? And what is it that people want right now?


Sara Nelson: Our demands were really about trying to work a normal amount, and for that job to be enough for us to live on and to support our families. And so we saw this in coronavirus that the fact that people have been getting by, by working two and three jobs or working a ton of overtime hours, and all of a sudden when there’s a crisis, these companies don’t even have to come for labor costs because they immediately get to just cut those hours and not have those costs. We shouldn’t be bearing the brunt of that. So we’re going to be out there fighting to make sure that one job is enough. And that means enough pay, enough health care, and a secure pension or a secure retirement. The only way we’re going to make changes is if we organize in the millions, you know, have more people in unions, build that political power, build that civic engagement that you get from being a part of a union. And we can reclaim a lot of the things that are very popular among the public, but that we don’t see resonating in public policy.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. So you mentioned all of this. We’re talking about Labor Day, obviously. Coming up, big travel holiday, but Thanksgiving and Christmas also coming soon. The TSA announced that masks should be worn through January 2022. Do you foresee what’s happening on flights with crews, you know, with these incidents getting any better in that time? Or do you think that these will continue as mask mandates in plane stay in place?


Sara Nelson: I think the entire country is in a little bit of a shell shock that we’re not through this pandemic yet. You know, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine. And flight attendants who are wearing those masks when we go to work 14 and 15 hour days, while we’re trying to enforce it with people who are on a two-hour flight with us—and it’s really frustrating. So everyone was looking forward to being in groups of people that are fully vaccinated, and, you know, we can be safe and we can move on with our lives. But I will tell you that flight attendants are very much like, are you kidding me!? We have to keep this up through the end of the year? And I have to go to work and continue to remind these people and then get beat up for that when I am sick and tired of wearing this mask myself all day long? And a lot of them are saying, well, at least we’ll get through the summer. And so we won’t be sitting there sweating in our masks on the plane. But it’s very difficult. And I think that we have to continue to do more to bring down these events of conflict. And the more that people are vaccinated, the more that people understand that we’re in this together, the more that we’re pushing back on politicians who are giving people the wrong information, the better off we’re going to be, and the safer flight attendants are going to be. The one demand that we have left to make sure that people understand the consequences if you’re not following the rules on our flights, is for DOJ to very publicly prosecute some of these bad actors. Because the minute that people start going to jail, and they can face up to 20 years in jail for these actions on our planes, everyone’s going to sober up real fast. And I think that flight attendants are going to be safer and the rest of the traveling public is going to be safer. So we really need DOJ to step up on that.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, I hope so. And just one last question for you: if you like me and probably Gideon have listen to this conversation and are like, oh, my God, how do I help the next time I am on a flight, like, how do I make sure I have the best possible flier I can be? What tips do you have for us? What should we be doing? How can we help out? What tell us what we need to do?


Sara Nelson: Absolutely. So first and foremost, model good behavior. So do not come to the airport at the last minute. Give yourself plenty of time so that you’re not rushed and you can be a helper and not be adding to all the angst everywhere. And then make sure that you have a nonperishable piece of food with you so that if you can’t get through those concession lines that are very long because not all the concessions are open, you’re able to get something to eat. And then just showing kindness to people through the process. Looking out where you can be a helper is very helpful because that’s going to lower the stress level of everyone before they even get to the gate.


Gideon Resnick: I really hope people were taking notes during that entire section, and laminating them for other people, printing them out, sending them to your friends. Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, thank you so much again for all your generous time today.


Sara Nelson: Thank you very much. And I want to say thank you to everyone who works. And Happy Labor Day.


Priyanka Aribindi: And if you’ll be flying out in the next week for the holiday, stay safe out there and be a pal to your flight attendants. That is the latest for now.


Gideon Resnick: It is Wednesday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we were talking about the rise and fall of a guy that we had honestly never really heard of until a month ago: Mike Richards is stepping down as executive producer of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” Previously, he had been announced as Jeopardy’s replacement host, actually for Alex Trebek, after a rigorous selection process that he was apparently in charge of. Go figure. But that all fell apart once the public found out about multiple lawsuits that have been filed against him as an executive producer of “The Price is Right.” And journalists resurfaced audio from his old podcast where he made sexist and anti-Semitic remarks. A representative for Jeopardy! cited, quote, “disruption and internal difficulties”—yeah, to say the least—in explaining Richard’s departure. All of this could have been avoided if they had just picked LeVar Burton. But Priyanka, what is your take on the situation?


Priyanka Aribindi: So deep sigh, Jeopardy!—lovely program. I’m not a regular viewer, but I’ve seen it a few times. It is perfectly lovely. There is way too much right now space in my brain that is occupied by this, man Jeopardy!—like all of this stuff that I, as you said, never heard of, never thought about prior to this month and now will forever be there. So, you know, Mike Richards, you have a lot clearly that is on you at this point in time. Like I would like to add to that, you’ve burdened my brain with this.


Gideon Resnick: I do think that this is one of the oddest possible career trajectories where his Wikipedia page before all this stuff was maybe a footnote.


Priyanka Aribindi: Nonexistent! Nonexistent.


Gideon Resnick: And now it’s all controversies top to bottom. But I will say that, like, the one interesting thing we were talking about before was this is a lot of people were bringing up the fact that this ended up being journalists doing the job that the company, Sony, and whoever else was in charge of this was not really doing it., right? Like this person, apparently through the reporting, there had been questions from other staffers about him. This journalist, Claire McNair, who wrote a book about Jeopardy, ended up reporting this thing out in the months after and had all of the audio and really sort of like put together the dossier that I guess the people who were in charge of the hiring process, who were not named Mike Richards, didn’t end up putting together.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. And no wonder no one got wind of this, it was all just going straight up to him.


Gideon Resnick: There’s still time to pick LeVar Burton, or somebody else who is not Mike Richards.


Priyanka Aribindi: There is still time to pick LeVar Burton, who’s like doing his little like “Happy Friday y’all” little tweets.


Gideon Resnick: Yes, the biggest “I told you” so perhaps of all time. Just like that. We have checked our temps. We will always love Jeopardy, but we hope it salvages itself. And we’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Priyanka Aribindi: Days after hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast with 150 mile per hour winds, search and rescue teams continue their effort in some of the hardest hit areas. As of our reporting time last night, the storm was responsible for at least four deaths, including two people who died after a highway collapse in southeastern Mississippi. In Louisiana, power remains out for over one million homes and businesses across the southeastern part of the state, including New Orleans. Local utility said parts of the city may regain power by tonight, but it could be weeks until all residents have electricity again. Other concerns in Louisiana include the heat. The National Weather Service issued heat advisories for places like New Orleans, and forecasters said that temperatures could feel as hot as 106 degrees in the coming days. It’s really not great, especially because people on the ground do not have access to air conditioning, or tap water in some cases. New Orleans officials announced places in the city where residents could get a meal and sit in air conditioning. And meanwhile, speaking yesterday morning, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell urged people who evacuated to stay in place while officials continue to assess the damage.


[clip of Deanne Criswell] We understand many people are away from their homes and want to get back in their homes. But I strongly encourage everybody: please listen to your local officials, please listen to when they tell you it’s safe to come back home.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. Ida is now a tropical depression, and it made its way through the Tennessee Valley yesterday afternoon, bringing heavy rains and threats of flooding to the western half of North Carolina, where the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning. If you want to help those affected, we will have links to some local organizations in our show notes. We highly suggest you check it out.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. There was a major victory yesterday for the confused but growing subset of people that express their love for America by obstructing democracy. So Texas Republicans passed their voter restriction bill, setting the conditions for Texas to become the 18th state to make it harder to vote since the 2020 election. The bill’s passage comes during a special legislative session called by Governor Greg Abbott. Republicans hold majorities in Texas’s House and Senate, but as you probably remember, House Democrats forced legislation to a halt six weeks ago by leaving town and heading to D.C.. Now, that move by Democrats was in protest of this very bill, which they say will disproportionately affect voters of color in the state. The bill forbids many of the methods that Texas’s Harris County, which is home to Houston, used last year to make voting easier during the pandemic, including drive-through polling places and 24-hour voting. It also gives new power to partisan poll watchers, creates rules and penalties for people who assist other voters, places limits on mail voting, and much more. Governor Abbott is expected to sign the bill. And Texas, Democrats are calling on the US Senate to pass federal legislation to protect the rights of voters in their state.


Priyanka Aribindi: Please do it. We need you to do it. I don’t think anything about this could be more clear. These are all, that’s a huge problem. We need your help. We have bad news for everyone in California who is trying to get out into nature over the next few weeks. The U.S. Forest Service has closed every national forest in California because of the extreme risk of wildfires. This affects 19 forests that total approximately 20 million acres of land. And the parks will be closed between now and September 17th. The closures aim to keep would-be park visitors safe and also remove potential sources of ignition for new wildfires. Reminder, these closures come as the Dixie fire continues to burn in northern California and the Caldor fire pushes closer to the state of Nevada. Earlier this week, the Caldor fire forced a mass evacuation of South Lake Tahoe, pushing Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak to declare a state of emergency. There’s already one going on in areas in California. The Caldor fire has burned over 190,000 acres since it began on August 14th. And at the time that we go to record, it is 16% contained, while a Dixie fire has burned over 807,000 acres and is 48% contained.


Gideon Resnick: Wow. If you are above the age of 50 and plan on not using Twitch today because it is Bridge night and/or you have no idea what I’m talking about, thank you for supporting the cause. But for everyone else, listen up. A host of channels are dark today to participate in what some streamers have called #ADayOffTtwitch. Now it is a walkout intended to draw attention to increasing heat and harassment experienced by some streamers, particularly marginalized creators. According to an article in The Verge, which we can link to, the idea for the day blossomed from the #TwitchDoBetter movement, which itself was a response to hate raids that streamers have been experiencing with more intensity recently. Streamers’ chats have reportedly been overwhelmed with racist, trans phobic, sexist, and broadly abusive messages that have made all the worse by bots that can apparently spam with automatically-generated messages. One of the organizers told The Verge, quote “A day off Twitch is largely about coming together in solidarity, the one day off is a step in the many steps we have to take towards change.”


Priyanka Aribindi: You know what I will be continuing to take, you know, the entire rest of my life off from Twitch because it seems great to not have to deal with all of that. That’s bad.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Shout out to these creators. I hope they get what they need. And those are the headlines.


Priyanka Aribindi: Two more things before we go. First, attention California listeners! Due to some wacky laws, a small minority of California voters have forced a recall of Governor Gavin Newsom. If you are a registered voter. Check your mail for your ballot, fill it out, and return it by September 14th. Make sure you vote “no” on question one to stop a Republican takeover of California. And please note what we just said was not authorized by a candidate or committee controlled by a candidate. This is me, talking to you. Please do it for me, for yourselves, for everybody else. Visit VoteSaveAmerica dot com/California to learn more.


Gideon Resnick: Yes. And second, we are taking a long vacation coming up. The WAD squad is on break through Labor Day. And we are going to be back next Wednesday, September 8th in your ears, hopefully a little bit more relaxed at the very least. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, continue to be the wrong age for Twitch, and tell your friends to listen.


Priyanka Aribindi: And if you’re into reading, and not just Mike Richards’ increasingly long Wikipedia page like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Priyanka Aribindi.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And catch us next year at Bonnaroo!


Gideon Resnick: Yes, we are selling tickets in advance now.


Priyanka Aribindi: I can’t wait.


Gideon Resnick: The Porta Potty in the parking lot are going to sell out.


Priyanka Aribindi: You don’t want to miss it guys. It’s a hot ticket.


Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes. Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran Me. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.


Show Notes “New Orleans foundation launches fund in response to Hurricane Ida; here’s how you can donate” –

The Verge: “After Weeks of Hate Raids, Twitch Streamers Are Taking a Day Off in Protest” –