Ever since the pioneering of the first flight by the Wright Brothers more than 100 years ago, and therefore the foundation of powered flights, the air transportation industry has grown to be one of the biggest in the world. Over the past 30 years, air transport has expanded exponentially with thereabouts of 2 billion people flying from one destination to another annually (Bor, 2007). To the world, working as a cabin crew is one of the most glamorous jobs one can ever imagine. However, there is a possibility that behind the glamor, professionalism, flawless grooming and the ever-smiling faces of the cabin crew that the exigencies that come with the job have an actual psychological and social impact on the cabin crew (Partridge & Goodman, 2007). Although the success of the industry, from an outsider’s perspective, may indeed point to the irrelevance of mental health issues, there is a possibility that flight has a psychological and social impact on the crew.
One of the most commonly used expressions is the length of boredom with interruptions of terror that define flying (Homan, 2012). This is particularly true considering issues that may occur with flying. Among these are challenging approaches, malfunctioning of flight systems, medical emergencies as well as flight hijackings—a factor that although not commonplace especially with new safety measures—is equally terrifying. According to Homan (2012), stress is part of the human make-up, and is particularly essential to life. However, when under stress, it is possible for humans to make errors of judgment including distraction from tasks, concentration on immaterial problems, inattention to flight activities, parochial thinking and absence of situational awareness. It I under such stressful circumstances that many air disaster have occurred including the 1972 Eastern 401 crash that left 99 people dead following fixation on an inconsequential problem, leading the crew to forget to fly the plane (Homan, 2012).
The gravity of psychological and social impact of flight on crew is perhaps best exemplified by the 1977 airline disaster that left 583 people dead after the collision of two B-747s in Tenerife (Homan, 2012). The collision, Homan (2012) informs, was caused by the stress Captain Jacob Louis was undergoing. Thus, convinced of having been given a take-off clearance, the captain had taken off only to get into the collision course with the other plane. Thus, while communication mix-up became identified as the cause of the accident, it turned out that the captain had personal stress in the times preceding the accident. The captain had to deal with a diversion to Tenerife; his crew was already almost out of legal duty time, a grave violation in Netherlands; and the captain held two positions as the director of Flight Training as well as a flight pilot (Homan, 2012). Moreover, the captain had to deal with minor hydraulic problem as well as having to refuel at an unfamiliar airport, which resulted in his blocking of another plane from taking off.
The compounding events greatly increased the stress levels of the pilot leading to the error in judgment and poor decision-making, which indeed led to the catastrophic accident. However, even in the absence of such catastrophic accidents, which lead to social losses, other situations are equally dilapidating to the psychological wellbeing of the crew; major system failures that are likely to occur while on air, medical emergencies and hijackings are all possible events in airline transportation. When such situations progress beyond the control of the cabin crew, the effects are so profound to a point of development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that extends to the passengers as well (Homan, 2012).
Away from the traumatic experiences, working as a cabin crew brings with it the joys of life. Indeed some airlines, such as British Airways, promote their cabin crew recruitment drives by indicating that work as a cabin crew is more of a privilege than a job (Partridge & Goodman, 2007). The privileged life herein stems from the fact that the cabin crew visits exotic places, and is able to interact and experience different cultures—most of which are privileges that are beyond many people’s reach.
Perhaps the joys of working as a cabin crew begin after the recruitment and training on flight attendance. The grueling six-month training almost rewards crew new crewmembers with “wings,” granting them to opportunity to fly the world over (Partridge & Goodman, 2007). The emotional and psychological satisfaction of becoming part of a cabin crew far outweighs the very grueling period of training the new recruits endure. Moreover, such a feat is satisfying given the achievement of an individual’s dream. Indeed, by self-satisfaction, cabin crewmembers are able to serve the passengers diligently, and ensure their safety, as this has become the first priority of cabin crewmembers (Partridge & Goodman, 2007).
Yet even with the seemingly rosy work arrangement and opportunity that the job presents to the cabin crew, realities do finally encroach as Partridge and Goodman (2007) inform. Among the most devastating of the realities is the lack of control of lifestyle, distance from family and friends and near impossibility of planning ahead due to the demands that come with the job. Moreover, the job physically takes a toll on the individual with major issues including jetlag, compounded depravation of sleep and dehydration (Partridge & Goodman, 2007). Further, constant changing of crews makes it impossible for the crewmembers to form any stable, meaningful and lasting working relationships, a factor that severs continuity and development in work relation, which therefore deflates the glamor bubble that comes with working as a cabin crew (Partridge & Goodman, 2007).
Even more consequential for the crew lifestyle is the inability to invest at home or form and maintain any personal relationships. Adding this reality to fleeting mode of work relationships leaves the individuals with the feelings of loneliness and isolation (Partridge & Goodman, 2007). Even as the lifestyle becomes an escape from the problems at home, it is only a retreat, a delay of sorts to problems that have to eventually be faced. Indeed, as one of the flight crew had shared, the job can be brilliant; however, compounded with other personal and home problems, the job can in fact be a purgatory (Partridge & Goodman, 2007).
In the same breath, Bor and Hubbard (2006) indicate that the major causes of aviation employee mental health problems emanate from the need to cope, stay safe and survive while at work (in the air), high workload and personal problems emanating from disrupted personal relationships, which research has shown customarily act as buffers to work related stress. Working as cabin crew therefore robs the crewmembers of personal relationships replacing them with temporal superficial working relationships that do nothing but compound the reality of lost personal relationship and social touch (Bor& Hubbard, 2006). Pilots specifically have to deal with the exigencies of flying, as well as the contention of daily life pressures such as job security.
While demands of the job and personal relationships may form a large section of psychological and social stress for flight crewmembers, the most devastating of the pressures come from regulatory practices and rules, which determine the fitness of crewmembers for their jobs. These practices and rules are not only stringent, but also regular, and constantly hang the threat of loss of license for the crewmembers, particularly to the airline and military aircraft crews (Bor& Hubbard, 2006).
Of importance for the crewmembers is usually the joy of travelling the world that the job brings. However, with normal working situations, there is always the possibility of interpersonal friction, which given some long-duration flights may develop into personal conflicts. While it is possible for individuals to brush such frictions aside in normal work environments, the isolation and confinement of the crewmembers provides opportunity for such friction to escalate into full-fledged conflicts, which may affect the overall work of the crewmembers (Morphew, 2011).
Far from the conflicts is the result of long flight on the performance of individuals in the crew. Commercial, military and space crew all endure long flights. Spaceflight crews particularly endure long flights (above four months), which have both physiological and psychological effects on the crew. According to Morphew (2011), asthenia, fatigue, emotional liability, irritability and decreased attention span all result from the long flights. The consequence of such have been impaired performance, increased crew conflict and errors in performing operation tasks, all of which constitute to heightened risk for the safety of the crew and by extension the success of the mission (Morphew, 2011)
The social conflicts highlighted can have grave effects on the psychological wellbeing of the crewmembers; however, other factors that affect crewmembers physically can also have psychological effects on the crew. Regulatory requirements dictate that cabin pressure is maintained at a particular level to ensure oxygen saturation for healthy individuals at between 85 and 91 percent (Richards, Cleland & Zuckerman, 2006). Most commercial aircraft fly at high altitudes. With such high altitudes (35,000-40,000 feet), the impact on human performance is marked as varieties of symptoms begin to manifest resulting from oxygen deficiency (Richards, Cleland & Zuckerman, 2006). Known as hypoxia, the effects of the deficiency largely show impairment in psychological functioning. These include impaired verbal learning, memory and cognitive flexibility as well as reduced visual learning. Such cognitive impairment, according to Richards, Cleland and Zuckerman (2006), are a major cause of accidents due to inappropriate assessment of danger and other poor judgment.
Common for the crew, especially after long travels cutting across different time zones is jet lag. The result of the long flight times is difficulty in sleeping in local nights, sleepiness and irritability. This is in addition to reduced attention span and general malaise (Richards, Cleland & Zuckerman, 2006). With increased flights and crossing of different time zones, this effect increases and at times may even become permanent, especially for aged crew. The fact that this can be a permanent condition with irritability is a cause for worry. Moreover, with the crew working with an individual with such irritability, it may be problematic to the rest of the crew, especially if such an individual is at a decision-making position such as the captain (Richards, Cleland & Zuckerman, 2006).
Evidently, working as a flight crew gives individuals the opportunity of travelling the world, interacting with different cultures, and meeting different people. On the surface, this is indeed one of the most glamorous professions in the world. On the surface, there is satisfaction with oneself for such outstanding achievement, particularly after a grueling interview and training process. It does indeed pay to be part of a flight crew. On the other hand, however, the exigencies that come with the job have a dilapidating effect on the psychological and social wellbeing of the crewmembers. The very absence of continuity in working relationships, the fast-paced and impersonal nature of the job does indeed take a toll on social and psychological wellbeing of the crewmembers. Life requires constants for individuals, especially for support and health; in the absence of these, it becomes almost meaningless to live. While there is indeed glamor in working as a flight crew, the absence of a strong social support weighs down on the crewmembers. Moreover, the workload and pressure of the job, along with the risks of mechanical malfunction, passenger difficulty, work friction and conflicts take toll on crewmembers. It is for these reasons therefore that it is necessary for the crew to have a social support system to reduce the psychological and social impact of work on these workers. Through such a support system, the crew can have some means of “blowing off steam” for their social and psychological wellbeing.
Bor, R. & Hubbard, T. (eds)(2006). Aviation Mental Health: Psychological Implications for Air Transportation. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing
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Homan, W., J. (2012).Stress Coping Strategies for Commercial Flight Crewmembers.Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education & Research, 12(1), 15-27
Morphew, M., E. (2011).Psychological and human factors in long duration spaceflight.MJM, 6, 74-80
Partridge, C. & Goodman, T. (2007).Psychological aspects of the role of cabin crew.Counseling at Work, Spring.
Richards, P., Cleland, J. & Zuckerman, J. (2006). Psychological factors relating to physical health issues: How physical factors in aviation and travel affect psychological functioning. Aviation Mental Health: Psychological Implications for Air Transportation. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing