Climate Change is the Real Job Killer, Makes Flying Less Safe, Flight Attendants Warn
Climate change—not climate solutions like the ones envisioned in the U.S. Green New Deal—is the real job killer, the union representing the world’s airline flight attendants argues in a recent post for Vox.
Sara Nelson, international president of the 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants, opens her opinion piece with accounts of three recent instances of heavy turbulence in the United States—from a trip where “pretty much everyone on the plane threw up,” as the pilot later recounted, to a more recent flight that “hit turbulence so sudden and fierce, the flight attendant serving drinks—and the 300-pound drink cart—was slammed against the ceiling of the plane. The flight attendant’s arm was broken and three passengers were hospitalized.”
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After 23 years as a flight attendant, and with extreme turbulence on the rise around the world, “I know first-hand the threat climate change poses to our safety and our jobs,” Nelson writes. “But flight attendants and airline workers have been told by some pundits that the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) environmental proposal, will ground all air travel.”
That notion “is absurd,” she responds. “It’s not the solutions to climate change that kill jobs. Climate change itself is the job killer.”
Nelson points to research identifying rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as the cause of disrupted jet streams and dangerous wind shear that “greatly increase turbulence,” especially at moderate latitudes where most planes fly.
“For flight attendants and passengers alike, that dangerous, shaky feeling in midair comes from air currents shifting,” she explains. “Clear air turbulence, or CAT, is the most dangerous. It cannot be seen and is virtually undetectable with current technology. One second, you’re cruising smoothly; the next, passengers and crew are being thrown around the cabin. For flight attendants, who are often in the aisles, these incidents pose a serious occupational risk.”
One study from the University of Reading predicts that turbulence “strong enough to catapult unbuckled passengers and crew around the aircraft cabin” will double or triple by mid-century. Which means the economic cost of turbulence, already clocking in at US$200 million per year for U.S. airlines, “will skyrocket as extreme incidents increase,” Nelson notes. “Costs are passed on to consumers and used to justify cuts to pay, benefits, and staffing levels for crew.”
Extreme weather events, from wildfires to cold snaps like the recent polar vortex, also result in hundreds or thousands of cancellations. “Grounded flights mean lost pay for flight attendants, who earn an hourly wage while we’re in the air,” she writes.
While Nelson might be a bit to forgiving in her account of her industry’s tepid response to the climate crisis, she makes a broader case for a Green New Deal that “harnesses American ingenuity, creates millions of well-paying union jobs, and saves the planet for our children.” She warns that building trust to make it all happen will take some work.
“Architects and proponents of the Green New Deal also need to address the history of the ‘fair and just transition’ the resolution promises,” she writes. “Too many communities have heard those words, only to see jobs disappear while the promise of retraining and new jobs never materializes. Workers are skeptical, and the opponents of meaningful action are taking advantage of that distrust.”
It follows that “if we can’t overcome suspicion that tackling climate change just means job loss, we’ll never enlist workers—or millions of others in jobs that rely on carbon-based fuels—in the solution.”