Diary of an air hostess in despair: Anguished families keep begging her for help, but there’s so little she can do. She’s exhausted but facing constant demands for overtime. As the airports chaos continues, read this account of frustration on the frontline
The chaos in our airports this past week has caused anger and heartbreak for thousands of travellers — as well as airline staff. Here, Gemma Stephenson, 26, who has worked as cabin crew since 2018, shares her diary of a situation that puts so many to shame . . .
Friday, May 27, 8pm
Taking a last look at Facebook before setting my alarm for 2.30am proves a bad idea. One of the crew on my morning flight to Tenerife has posted saying that we might not have enough staff on board. It’s the start of half term and we have 11 hours until the scheduled departure. I go to sleep hoping ‘Crewing’ — the team that co-ordinates the airline’s pilots and cabin crew — sorts it out.
Saturday, May 28, 3.30am
One last check that I haven’t missed a call saying that my flight has been cancelled, then I head to the airport. We get informed of delays and cancellations long before the passengers, who might get texted on their way to the airport, or even at check-in. We don’t get paid if we get stood down before we’ve reported for work, meaning it’s more important to make sure we don’t arrive at the airport when a flight’s been delayed than it is to tell passengers to stay at home.
Walking towards the terminal, I see a long queue of passengers at a bus stop. An elderly gentleman spots my uniform and rushes over. ‘We’ve been here all night,’ he says, gesturing towards his wife and another couple — they’re supposed to be holidaying in Corfu together. Instead, they’re being bussed to a hotel while the airline arranges an alternative flight.
‘They’re not telling us anything,’ he says, bewildered. ‘Can you find out for us?’ I imagine my grandparents in the same situation and my heart lurches, but sadly I don’t have access to the information they need.
Time now to bring home a plane full of holidaymakers who’ve had to wait for us to finally land in Tenerife, delaying their return journey
Cabin crew have to go through security like everyone else. On a good day, you’re through in ten minutes. Right now, it’s taking up to an hour. That’s because staffing problems are affecting every element of airport life — in the car parks, at the check-in desks, throughout security and even in the shops and cafes.
So many people were let go during the pandemic, and it seems enough haven’t been re-hired. Staff are stretched so thinly that even normal sickness levels can cause problems. There aren’t enough baggage handlers to load luggage onto planes, or enough cabin crew for each flight.
Meanwhile, the knock-on effect of delays is that pilots and their co-pilots keep running out of flight hours — how many hours they’re allowed to fly for in a given period. I race into the crew room for my pre-flight briefing, just in time to hear a manager announce: ‘Every flight today is delayed — it’s a mess.’
Our 6.30am flight takes off three hours late. Some passengers seem quite tipsy when they board, having spent the delay in one of the bars. Thankfully, the alcohol means that they sleep through the flight. I’m relieved because booze can as easily make a disgruntled passenger turn nasty.
Time now to bring home a plane full of holidaymakers who’ve had to wait for us to finally land in Tenerife, delaying their return journey. They look tired but happy to be in the air. ‘Can you check if our bags are in the hold?’ a lady asks me. Sadly, I can’t. What she doesn’t realise is that her biggest problem will be retrieving them from the carousel when we are back in the UK.
My heart sinks as the caterers board the plane and immediately announce that there’s no hot food, alcohol and crisps. The only food I can offer is bars of chocolate
We land and send our passengers on their way. As crew we spend another hour on board cleaning up. Passing the carousels, I see the bags from our flight still haven’t appeared. I spot the lady who asked me to check on her luggage asleep on the floor. I dread to think how long she’ll be waiting.
Sunday, May 29, 10am
It’s my day off, and I’m due at my parents’ for lunch. But Crewing calls asking me to work a delayed afternoon flight to Barcelona. Right now, barely any planes are taking off on time. Knowing my presence could stop the plane being cancelled, I say yes, glad to also get double time for the extra shift.
I head to one of the food concessions to grab something on my way to my plane when I feel a tug on my arm. It’s an exhausted-looking mum jiggling a baby on her hip, a red-eyed toddler clutching her hand. She’s been here since the early hours, waiting for a flight to Rhodes. ‘Should I just give up and take the kids home?’ she asks. I have no idea what is going to happen to her flight. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I say. ‘I can’t help you.’
My heart sinks as the caterers board the plane and immediately announce that there’s no hot food, alcohol and crisps. The only food I can offer is bars of chocolate.
‘You lot are a joke,’ a furious passenger declares when I tell him I haven’t got a toastie for his hungry little boy. I apologise and ask, as mildly as possible, if there’s anything else I can get for him, praying he doesn’t ask for a bag of crisps. I understand he’s upset, but it’s hard to bear the brunt of passengers’ anger when there’s nothing we can do.
I crawl into bed, exhausted, glad I’m off tomorrow. I can’t believe we’re in this much of a mess and the week hasn’t even started. Our managers are telling us to fill in fatigue reports — forms where you state the extra hours you’ve worked so that if you make a mistake it’s been officially recorded how tired you are, which offers you some protection but also highlights potential issues to the powers that be.
My alarm goes off and I see a notification saying there’s been a change to my rota — my flight is delayed, so I’ll need to report for duty later
Monday, May 30, 9am
I wake to a message from a friend asking me to cover her standby shift — meaning I’d potentially get called into work this afternoon. She’s exhausted and desperate for a day off. I feel terrible saying no, but I’m working an early flight tomorrow and can’t risk getting stranded at a foreign airport. I sleep most of the day.
Tuesday, May 31, 2.45am
My alarm goes off and I see a notification saying there’s been a change to my rota — my flight is delayed, so I’ll need to report for duty later. A Crewing operator calls and says I should go back to bed and check in with the team at 9am. However, I can’t sleep. My stomach’s churning thinking about all the upset I’ll face — if the flight even takes off.
I keep my head down and go straight to the crew room — it’s heartbreaking being asked for information from desperate and tired people, many of whom have been sleeping on the floor, and having none to give them. But first I have to get through security.
They’ve been doing more random bag searches on crew lately, which seems ridiculous under the circumstances, when there aren’t enough security staff to keep things flowing smoothly. Today, I get stopped. It’s so frustrating and insulting — and feels as if our bosses don’t trust us.
Our flight, which should have taken off at 6.30am, finally gets into the air. I’ve heard of fully boarded planes getting cancelled on the runway, meaning the poor passengers get let down at the last hurdle, so it’s a relief to take off. As we wait, one couple tells me they won’t believe their holiday — which has been cancelled twice — will actually happen until they land.
Wednesday, June 1
I’m on standby today, but don’t get called in. I chat with a friend who is now a waitress. She’s on a higher hourly wage now than when she worked for the airline — we get paid around £1,200 a month basic salary, which gets topped up £4.40 an hour while we’re on duty.
‘Maybe you should quit too,’ she suggests. But you don’t do this job for the money — you do it because you like people and love being a part of what should be an exciting start to their holiday.
Passengers often share stories with us of how special a trip is for them — it might be their honeymoon, or a much longed-for break after a difficult period. That’s what’s so awful. You know that the people sleeping alongside the baggage carousels, queuing out of the airport’s doors, getting texts to say their flight has been cancelled, deserve better.
Thursday, June 2
I’ve got two days off now, and, unsurprisingly, I get asked to go in on both of them. I can’t. I’m booked in at the dentist for treatment that needed doing weeks ago, but I wasn’t allowed to swap my shift. Since the start of May, when things began to get really busy, we’ve had reminders that rota changes aren’t currently allowed.
Watching the passengers march on board our three-hour-delayed flight home from Tenerife, my stomach churns. They were delayed on their way out
Friday, June 3, 8pm
I set my alarm knowing tomorrow will be another day of delays.
I’ll be bringing home some of the passengers who set off last weekend for their holiday. Hopefully, they’ll have had a lovely time, despite the way the bosses of the travel firms they booked with have let them down. Those running the airlines have had months to prepare for this week. I just hope — as does every airport worker — that enough lessons have been learnt so we can head into this summer in a stronger position.
Saturday, June 4, 6am
In the crew room a manager tells us that we mustn’t engage with any passengers who start quizzing us about compensation as we pass through the airport. I never imagined myself saying this, but I’m starting to feel embarrassed to wear my uniform.
Watching the passengers march on board our three-hour-delayed flight home from Tenerife, my stomach churns. They were delayed on their way out, ruining the first day of their holidays; now we can’t get them home on time.
Some demand free drinks and food, but we say no — otherwise we’d have to give it to everyone. Thankfully, as the flight goes on, they seem to calm down — no doubt happy to know they won’t be among the passengers who potentially will be so delayed that they’ll be stuck abroad next week when they should be back at work and school.
Sunday, June 5
I’m off today, but I feel so weary and lacking in energy that I spend the afternoon on the sofa.
Crew are now calling in sick with exhaustion, despite running out of sick days, meaning that they face being disciplined
Monday, June 6, 9am
I’m on standby. Crewing calls telling me to report for duty. When I do, I’m told a taxi will be taking me and two other crew members to another airport a three-hour drive away. To be shunted to other bases isn’t all that unusual.
As we get into the taxi, one of my colleagues tells the driver to wait a minute. ‘I’m exhausted,’ he tells us, explaining he’d had a long and stressful working day yesterday, and the thought of sitting in a car for three hours, followed by God knows what we will face at the end of it, is too much. ‘I’m not doing it,’ he says, leaving the car.
The other crew member says she feels the same and gets out too. They stand themselves down — a few minutes later I get a call telling me to go home too.
Tuesday, June 7
I’m on standby again today. I wonder about my colleagues from yesterday, and whether they will be disciplined for refusing to work. I hope not. They’d clearly reached their limit. We’re all exhausted, sick of bearing the brunt of passengers’ understandable frustrations; fed up with the delays that have become a routine part of the job and are making every working day a horrible challenge.
Crew are now calling in sick with exhaustion, despite running out of sick days, meaning that they face being disciplined. They know that they could lose their jobs but have stopped caring if they get sacked. Doesn’t that say it all?
Gemma Stephenson’s name has been changed. As told to Rachel Halliwell.
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