The Unsung Heroes of the Crash Landing in San Francisco

4 years ago

[Editor's Note: On Monday, more details about the heroic efforts of Asiana flight attendants Lee Yoon-Hye and Jiyeon Kim were been reported by several major news outlets. --Grace]

Like many people, I've been following news about Saturday's crash landing in San Francisco. It's a frightening reminder of the risks that come with air travel, but an uplifting one, thanks to the small number of casualties. The Mayor of San Francisco was quoted saying: "We're lucky we have this many survivors." And the Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department said that it was "nothing short of a miracle..." At CNN, after mentioning the two confirmed fatalities, the reporter writes, "Somehow, 305 others survived." Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote that it was a "serious moment to give thanks." But to whom?


SEOUL, July 7, 2013 Asiana Airlines cabin crew react at the Asiana Airlines Head Office in Seoul, South Korea, July 7, 2013. Two people were confirmed dead in Saturday's crash landing of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 passenger plane originated from Seoul, the Republic of Korea (ROK), at San Francisco International Airport, California of the United States. Credit Image: © Park Jin-Hee/Xinhua/


There's a kind of person who is trained to maximize survival in the case of a plane crash: the flight attendant. In her book The Managed Heart, Arlie Hochshchild notes that airlines don't advertise the intense training their flight attendants receive because it reminds potential passengers that air travel is risky. As a result, most people seriously underestimate the skills flight attendants bring on board and the dedication they have to the safety of their passengers.

According to Kathleen M. Barry's Femininity in Flight, flight attendants have to learn hundreds of regulations and know the safety features of all of the aircraft in their airline's fleet. They must know how to evacuate the plane on land or sea within 90 seconds; fight fires 35,000 feet in the air; keep a heart attack or stroke victim alive; calm an anxious, aggressive, or mentally ill passenger; respond to hijackings and terrorist attacks; and ensure group survival in the jungle, sea, desert, or arctic.

It isn't just book learning; for example, Delta Airlines' flight attendants train in "live fire pits" and "ditching pools." As one flight attendant was quoted in Femininity in Flight:

I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol or a servant. I think of myself as somebody who knows how to open the door of a 747 in the dark, upside down and in the water.

This is why I'm surprised to see almost no discussion of the flight attendants' role in this "miracle." Consider the top five news stories on Google at the time I'm writing: CNNFoxCBS, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today.  These articles use passive language to describe the evacuation: "slides had deployed"; all passengers "managed to get off."  When the cabin crew are mentioned, they appear alongside and equivalent to the passengers: the crash forced "dozens of frightened passengers and crew to scamper from the heavily damaged aircraft"; "passengers and crew were being treated" at local hospitals.

Only one of these five stories, at Fox, acknowledges that the 16 cabin crew members worked through the crash and its aftermath.  The story mentions that, while passengers who could were fleeing the plane, crew remained behind to help people who were trapped, slashing seat belts with knives supplied by police officers on the ground.  The plane was going up in flames; they risked their lives to save others.

I don't know what the flight attendants on this plane did or didn't do to minimize injuries or save lives, but I would like to know.  Instead, they are invisible in these news stories as workers, allowing readers and future passengers to remain ignorant of the skills and dedication they bring to their work.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the principle writer for Sociological Images. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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