Flight attendant talks about entering the industry during pandemic

Jena Delaney in her American Airlines garb / Photos courtesy of Jena Delaney

A month and a half ago, Jena Delaney, a 27-year-old ponytailed flight attendant who favors bright red lipstick, was working a trip from Indiana to Pennsylvania when a husky, middle-aged man began verbally attacking her. Then, as he took his seat, he bashed her with his arm. 

He was drunk and not wearing a mask, she says. A few minutes later, airport police escorted him off the plane.

 “The guy was yelling at me during the boarding process, raising his voice,” she recalls. “I felt very threatened. One of the pilots went to the back to speak to the gentleman who said he would apologize to me, but he never did.”

Delaney is just one of the 973 flight attendants who were involved in Federal Aviation Administration investigations of unruly passengers so far in 2021. Her pandemic voyage has been unique in many ways. From a badly timed departure from her last job to being furloughed, working side jobs, and confronting unruly passengers, she says it hasn’t been a smooth ride. 

Delaney grew up in South Florida. She was born and raised in Fort Myers before moving to Miami in 2013 as a college freshman at Florida International University. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication and worked a few public relations jobs in Miami. One of her favorite jobs included working for a hotel chain and flying to Jamaica. 

She loved to travel from a young age, perhaps inspired by her parents, who were both from the United States but met in the Virgin Islands. 

Her mom Sherri remembers being concerned about her daughter’s desire to travel the world. “I was nervous when she started traveling, especially by herself,” Sherri said jokingly. “But I knew if anything happened to her, it would be while she was doing what she loved.” To date, Delaney has visited 23 countries, including Greece, Croatia, and Vietnam. 

In October 2019, a few months before the pandemic hit, Delaney grew tired of her job as a social media specialist for a national clothing retailer. She found the work atmosphere was toxic, encouraged workaholism, and was unrewarding.  

“My boss set a box of tissues on the desk in front of me and said I was going to need them,” is how she recalls one off-putting meeting with her boss.

A few weeks later, Delaney left her job as public relations specialist in South Florida to get away from the hectic work environment. She thought she’d escape to the calm clouds in the sky. 

“A friend of mine who was a pilot encouraged me to become a flight attendant since she knew I loved to travel,” she said. 

She applied for a job as an American Airlines flight attendant in November 2019. Six weeks later, she finished her training just as COVID-19 took hold. To her and many others’ surprise, the travel industry took a nosedive. 

“My job as a flight attendant definitely changed once the pandemic hit,” Delaney said. “It was kind of a crazy time because I had just learned my role. Flights were full on our CRJ-900, which fits 76 passengers. Every flight was booked, but by April, we were virtually flying empty planes.”

At that point, they had stopped in-flight service. Minimal contact was a priority, and masks were required. However, Delaney said passengers didn’t have to wear masks until May 1, 2020. 

She can’t pinpoint her first experience with a defiant passenger during the pandemic, but there were many. “There are a lot of unruly passengers, mainly refusing to wear a mask or not wearing it properly over their nose,” Jena recounted.  

Delaney not only dealt with hostility from the public but she was forced to find another way to make a living after 19,000 other American Airlines employees were furloughed in September 2020. She picked up several side jobs like Uber driving and grocery delivery. 

During the almost four months she was furloughed, Delaney doubted whether she would continue working as a flight attendant. She explored a possible career change and got her license as a real estate agent in Florida in December. She didn’t have time to sell any property as she was hired back in January 2021.

Since being hired back at the beginning of the year, it hasn’t been a smooth ride for Delaney. She said, “flying has become much more strenuous. Not only are we dealing with upset passengers, but there is also a staff shortage, which complicates everything.”

Two weeks ago, Delaney waited in her North Carolina hotel room to hear if she was needed at the understaffed Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Her $1,300 a month apartment in a renovated school building was empty back at her base in Philadelphia. It features 12-foot tall windows that frame modern downtown skyscrapers that hover above the rooftops of modest, old red brick buildings. 

“If I was at home where my car is, I would be able to Uber when I’m not flying and make some extra income,” Delaney lamented. 

She isn’t there often enough to enjoy the views as she spends only two weeks out of the month at her apartment if she’s lucky. Airline travel is ramping up and is expected to be at its busiest since pre-pandemic times. 

Air rage, as Jena’s encounter with the drunk passenger exemplified, is when a passenger becomes excessively disruptive during a flight. Incidents of unruly passengers on flights have increased almost 600% since 2019. 

In September, the Association of Flight Attendants asked Congress for help to address insufficient staffing during a House Transportation Committee hearing. They hope an increased number of flight attendants will ensure adequate observation and responses to issues involving aggressive passengers. 

Understaffing is a major concern for the holiday season. American Airlines canceled nearly 2,000 flights over Halloween weekend due to staff shortages. TSA screenings for November 1 were 1.9 million, up from 850,000 this time last year. That is a 135% increase, which is sure to rise as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. 

Air travel is bound to be hectic for passengers and industry employees in the next few weeks. Despite all the challenges, Jena sees a future for herself as a flight attendant. Traveling is her passion and the flight benefits she receives make up for the salary. 

After her turbulent journey, she reflected on her experience and concluded that “I’m happy because I found a lifelong career that I love. Ultimately, the pandemic will not last for my entire life…I hope.”

Genevieve Bowen is a student at FIU majoring in journalism and political science. She is an aspiring journalist and writer with a penchant for politics.