First off, I want to say thank you to Ellen for the sweet post about my birthday yesterday. And thank you for all the nice comments and pictures from all the dear people here on EX.
Because of Irma, the crew desk was working hard to keep up with airport closings and unsafe flight paths during the past few days. And they are switching up a lot of flight attendants' schedules. I was converted to Ready Reserve status for 48 hours. That means I had to be available to drive immediately to an airport to work on an altered or unscheduled flight that needed more flight attendants.
So I spent my birthday quietly at my condo, carrying my phone with me everywhere, including the bathroom and the laundry room. I had been expecting to get an assignment, so I had gotten some mini-cupcakes to take with me to share with the crew on my birthday. But the crew desk never called yesterday, so my Ready Reserve status was extended for another 24 hours (today). Again, I've received no assignment today, so I've had plenty of alone time for three whole days.
And, as happens every year since 9/11/01, I just don't feel much like celebrating my birthday. It somehow seems callous to celebrate, laugh, enjoy good wishes from my friends/family, eat cake and ice cream...as though something unspeakably horrible didn't happen the very next morning back in 2001.
Those of you who have known me for five years already know that the anniversary of 9/11 is a very hard day for all flight attendants and pilots. There are many flight attendants who never had the courage to ever fly again after 9/11. It was a long time before flight attendants didn't feel unsafe and vulnerable every single time they went to work, boarded a plane and were sealed in a metal tube that was hurtling though the air at a ground speed of over 500mph at an altitude of 36,000 ft...and, for all intents and purposes, trapped with about 150-250 people that we knew nothing about.
We learned to watch like hawks during the boarding process. We were no longer making friendly jokes as passengers boarded, because we were taught to assess each and every person as they boarded; Did they seem nervous? Did they refuse to meet our eyes? Did they look sweaty or uncomfortable? Were they wearing clothing that could conceal a weapon? Were they traveling alone? Was there anything odd or out-of-place about their behavior? What did their luggage look like and how did they handle their own luggage? We jumped at every unexpected noise. We watched every single passenger's movements during the flight. We were suspicious of people when they walked in the aisles or when they asked questions about the airplane or the pilots.
We were all trained in defense techniques. We were taught how to use the steel barrier gates that were installed to separate the passengers from the cockpit door when the pilots needed a bathroom break or have their meal trays sent in to them. We learned how to never let the cockpit door be open for more than three seconds, and to call out "Door, door, door" if the door did not close within those allotted three seconds. We learned about how to react to gunfire on an airplane, as newly-enacted federal aviation law now allowed pilots to carry guns. We learned how to use wine bottles, ice hammers and pots of hot coffee as weapons to protect ourselves, and more importantly, the cockpit door. We were told that our primary responsibility was to keep the pilots safe and to use any measures necessary to not allow the cockpit to be breached. Even at the cost of our own safety. No. Matter. What.
For a long time, flight attendants came to work in fear. Slowly, over the years, these changes became our new normal. The fear subsided, but we still assess every person on the plane with a critical eye to ascertain if they are friend or foe. We do it as you board. We do it during the safety demo. We do it during the beverage service and the meal service. We do it every time someone gets up when the seatbelt sign is on. We do it when someone spends too long in the lavatory. And whenever a passenger comes into the galley with a request, a complaint or "just to stretch", we make a judgement; "Is this real? Or is this meant to be a distraction while something is occurring at the other end of the plane?
We are always watching, watching...
And it's become such second nature to us now that we don't think of 9/11 anymore while we do it. "Situational awareness" is a phrase we learned and we use it every day on every flight. And we are so good at it now that you won't even know that we are doing it. We may even joke a bit about it now and then. I do, sometimes. If I am the flight attendant who is standing guard at the steel gate (or the cart positioned to block access), I might say to the flight attendant who will be opening the cockpit door, "Wait, I have to get ferocious-looking before you open it!". But it's not a joke. Keeping the cockpit safe is deadly serious. 9/11 changed our jobs forever.
And each year, when September 11th comes, all flight attendants remember that day when all hell broke loose in the skies. And we remember why we do what we do, why Federal Air Marshalls do what they do, why pilots can now carry guns, why going through security checkpoints is such an awful process. But, mostly, we think about the 25 flight attendants who came to work that morning, just as we do today. They checked the safety equipment, they listened to the pilot's briefing, they made the coffee...and within hours, they were gone forever.
So, I do really enjoy getting birthday wishes and cupcakes on 9/10...but in the back of my mind, I am dreading the sadness that the next day will bring. And thinking about the 25 flight attendants and eight pilots who never got to have another birthday with cupcakes...and how our world changed that day.
Sorry to be a downer, you guys. I really do love getting birthday wishes.