Flight Attendant From Wheeling Tries To Keep the Skies Friendly
WHEELING — When Tammy Paull chose a flight attendant’s travel-rich life over moving forward with a psychology degree earned at Bethany College, working mostly meant helping people stay safely buckled up and serving the occasional dab of caviar on longer, more luxurious flights.
Fast forward to COVID: The Woodsdale resident is regularly using that 1980s training to keep the New York-to-London flights she staffs friendly. Or, at least free from the kind of passenger vs. crew conflicts that led to a woman knocking out a flight attendant’s teeth on a Southwest Airlines flight earlier this year.
“There’s nowhere to go,” Paull said of the reality of rocketing over the Atlantic at 40,000 feet in a slim sleeve of steel. “I don’t want to get hit. You try to de-escalate the situation the best that you can.”
So, she patrols the cabin every 15 minutes per Federal Aviation Administration rules — determined to keep calm and carry on with a job she still loves. Paull politely requests passengers comply with a federal mandate on international flights to keep their noses and mouths covered except while eating or drinking.
And requests and requests.
Paull estimates she does a mask intervention at least 100 times during each seven-hour flight. On a recent flight, she interacted with a single family 30 times. She counted.
Sometimes, passengers mask up with reciprocal politeness, Paull said. Sometimes, they pull out an extra-large bag of chips and stretch their eating break toward infinity. Sometimes, one passenger tattles on another. Other times, someone becomes belligerent.
Confrontational passengers are generally American, she said, noting Europeans have grown accustomed to COVID restrictions that have been broader and lengthier than in the U.S. But, it was an interaction with a young Brazilian woman early this year that most unnerved her.
When Paull used the words “federal mandate” in asking the woman to mask, she said the woman made air quotes with her fingers and responded, “Oh, ‘federal mandate.’ I’m so scared.”
It was Paull who was scared, she realized at that moment.
Recently returned to work from a voluntary nine-month COVID leave, Paull was not yet eligible for vaccination. She was concerned about getting sick. She didn’t want to pass the virus to her family. She wanted to keep all her teeth.
Yet, Paull also didn’t want to escalate the interaction toward an official airline warning on her end. That can lead to a passenger getting stranded out of country if they are placed on an airline-specific no-fly list. Or to police involvement — the woman accused of the Southwest Airlines assault was arrested when the plane landed.
Paull kept the interaction calm — at a personal price. “It’s exhausting,” she said.
A NEW WORLD
Beyond learning to calmly negotiate such emotional rapids, Paull said she has also come to an understanding of just what the pandemic has done to the human spirit.
“(There’s) anxiety that people are feeling, whether you are wearing the mask or not wearing the mask,” Paull said of what she sees on every flight. “The mask has changed people. This whole thing has changed people.”
It has certainly changed her work life, she added. Prior to COVID, the 24-hour layover that London flight crews require in order to sleep and refresh before a return flight included jaunts to the iconic Harrods department store, brisk walks through Hyde Park and ferreting out great places to eat.
“London is so pretty in the Christmastime,” she recalled of her favorite flights of the year.
Now, she commutes from Wheeling to Pittsburgh International Airport, then by air to either LaGuardia Airport or John F. Kennedy International Airport. That’s all before technically starting her overnight shift.
“It’s a tough time … I put that mask on the minute I enter Pittsburgh airport,” Paull said “I (still) have that mask on when I get to my hotel room (in London).”
It’s about 15 hours of masking except for eating or drinking.
“That’s a long time,” Paull said. “When passengers get upset about it, it’s like, ‘I know.’ ”
And, until just mid August, flight crews faced an added wrinkle of COVID protocols, she noted.
While she has the vaccine passport now required to travel to some nations, the United Kingdom considered international crews such a potential disease risk the government requested they remain in their hotel rooms during their long layover. Their hotel even offered half-price meals to encourage in-room dining over a search for take out.
While some of the layover time is needed for sleep, Paull said it was tough to spend three straight days either in an airplane or indoors, mostly alone.
“You do Europe (flights) because you do want to go out and have a nice dinner or sight see or catch up with friends. You don’t want to just sit in your room,” she said. “You kind of need fresh air.”
But, Paull said she thinks about such things in light of a long and largely pleasant career.
“I will continue to do this job as long as I’m still happy and, right now, I’m still happy,” she said.
She added that she hopes COVID and the behaviors it has unleashed will go away soon enough that it will not be able to take that away. “I didn’t take this job to be a police officer.”