Asiana Flight 214: Flight Attendants Are Unsung Heroes in the San Francisco Crash

Like many people, I’ve been following news about Asiana flight 214's crash landing in San Francisco. It’s a frightening reminder of the risks that come with air travel, but also an uplifting story thanks to the small number of deaths. The mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, said, “We’re lucky we have this many survivors.” And Joanne Hayes-White, the chief of the San Francisco Fire Department, said that it was “nothing short of a miracle.”  Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, who had initially planned to take that flight with her family, wrote that it was a “serious moment to give thanks.”  But to whom?

There are professionals dedicated to maximizing passenger survival in the event of a plane crash: flight attendants. Airlines don’t advertise the intense safety and crash training their flight attendants receive, because they're wary of reminding passengers that air travel is risky. As a result, most people underestimate the skills flight attendants bring on board, and the dedication they have to the safety of their passengers.

Flight attendants have to learn hundreds of regulations, and know the safety features of all of the aircraft in their airline’s fleet. They know how to evacuate all passengers from a 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.

Such expertise doesn’t come from book learning, alone; they train in "live fire pits" and "ditching pools." As one flight attendant once said, "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: CNNFox NewsCBS, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today. These articles use passive language to describe the evacuation: "slides had deployed,” and passengers “managed to get off.”  When the cabin crew is mentioned, it appears 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 the five stories I listed, the Fox News article, acknowledges that the 16 cabin crew members didn't merely survive, but worked through the crash and its aftermath. It notes that while passengers fled, the crew remained behind to help people who were trapped, slashing seat belts with knives supplied by police officers on the ground. As 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, most news outlets are allowing readers – and future passengers – to remain ignorant of the skills, dedication, and bravery that flight attendants bring to their work.

An earlier version of this article appeared at Sociological Images. Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.