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With no mask mandate, flight attendant prepares for more conflicts between passengers

After the federal mask mandate was lifted on April 18, Riley worries the next phase may only bring new conflicts for flight attendants to handle.
Brittany Riley has a been a flight attendant for 11 years. Two years into a pandemic, her job has brought anxiety over fears of growing incidents of air rage.
Brittany Riley has a been a flight attendant for 11 years. Two years into a pandemic, her job has brought anxiety over fears of growing incidents of air rage.Courtesy Brittany Riley

When Brittany Riley gets home, she peels off her work uniform as quickly as possible and washes her hands. She puts her bags on a special rack in the garage away from any common rooms. She makes sure she is clean and everything is disinfected before she can hug and kiss her three children. 

It’s a routine she started at the beginning of the pandemic and one she continues to this day.

Brittany Riley is a flight attendant. 

Riley has been a flight attendant for 11 years and currently works for a major U.S. airline. The job has always involved constant vigilance, she said, but over the past two years, her role has shifted from being the person you go to for protection to someone "on edge" about her own safety.

In 2021, there were more than 5,981 unruly passenger reports, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. As of April 12, there have been 1,150 in 2022. In 2020, there were 183.

A majority of these incidents were related to the nationwide public transportation mandate that required passengers to wear masks. Originally set to expire on April 18, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the mandate to May 3 as COVID-19 cases were on the rise due to the BA.2 omicron subvariant. But on Monday, a Florida federal judge overturned the mandate, and multiple airlines announced shortly after that masks would be optional on flights. (The Department of Justice has since said it would appeal the ruling, but while litigation is ongoing, masks are still not required on planes.)

Riley said the news has brought a "weird feeling." On the one hand she feels a sense of relief that she no longer has to enforce a rule many passengers fought back against. But on the other, she worries about COVID-19 exposures for her children, one of whom is ineligible to receive the vaccine.

"That has been (my husband's and my) fear since day one of this pandemic," Riley told TODAY. "Because of all the steps we've been taking, we've been able to avoid that. But now who's to say that that's not going to change?"

While she is glad people have the option to do what they want, she believes CDC recommendations are in place for a reason: "If you can avoid something, why wouldn't you?" she said. (Even though there is no longer a mandate, the CDC still recommends wearing masks on public transportation, including airplanes.)

To understand what flight attendants have endured the past two years, Charlotte-based flight attendant Teddy Andrews put it best when he testified before Congress on Sept. 23 about his experience.

“Flight attendants came to work when everyone else was told to stay home. Then, when the demand for air travel dropped off steeply, we worried about our job security. Now, flight attendants are in a third phase of this crisis, worried and anxious about our safety simply by coming to work and fulfilling our job responsibilities,” he said. 

Riley spoke with TODAY about the unique stresses of her job right now and what she wants passengers to know about life on the other side of a flight. 

‘Actively in the thick of it’

Before becoming a flight attendant, Riley had always loved traveling. She didn't, however, care much for flying. But after working in the office for an airline, she decided to try it out. She was interviewed for a position as a flight attendant and worked through her “semi-fear” of flying, launching what is now her dream career. 

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed what that job looked like. When cases began spreading in the U.S., and schools, offices and universities shifted to remote models, Riley’s life didn’t change.

“We still put on our uniforms, packed our bags, kissed our kids goodbye, and we went on our merry way,” Riley said. 

Riley and her husband, who is also a flight attendant, feared for the safety of their kids. At the beginning, they would not walk into their house until all of their clothing and belongings had been removed, disinfected and moved to the wash.

“We were actively in the thick of it,” she said. “We were constantly concerned about being as safe as we can be for our passengers and for our families.” 

Protecting herself at work, however, soon shifted to fighting for her career, as her working hours reduced and fewer flights took off. 

The threat of furlough

As fewer people started traveling by air due to the pandemic, Riley had to pick up fewer flights and began losing pay, as well as the flexibility in her schedule that she was used to. Riley was then faced with two options: Take a voluntary furlough and keep her health insurance benefits — or keep working, risk an involuntary furlough and lose her health coverage. With three children, now ages 3, 5 and 11, at home in a pandemic, losing health coverage wasn’t an option. 

Riley has three children.
Riley has three children.Courtesy Brittany Riley

Riley was just one of many flight attendants making very difficult decisions during a “very scary time,” she said. 

“We were pulling from our 401Ks. We moved in with family,” Riley said. “It was just one hit after the next, it felt like, and once we got to a place (of), ‘OK, this can’t get any worse,’ bam, we got hit with something else.”

Riley took a voluntary furlough. Her husband was also furloughed, leaving both without a paycheck.

Riley said she also felt a lack of support from Congress following the expiration of the federal CARES Act Payroll Support Program on Sept. 30, 2020. That expiration triggered the furlough of thousands of airline employees.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a union representing nearly 50,000 flight attendants, including Riley, was one of several unions advocating for the extension of the aviation payroll support program. Congress passed that extension in December 2020, later extending it again through Sept. 30, 2021.

Growing air rage

When mask mandates were in place, incidents of air rage, defined as aggressive or violent behavior on a flight, skyrocketed. Every flight, Riley said she felt anxious for her own safety, having seen headline after headline about unruly passengers.

In July, one woman on an American Airlines flight was duct-taped to her seat after trying to open a plane door during a flight and assaulting and biting the flight attendants who tried to stop her. In August, a passenger groped and assaulted flight attendants on a Frontier Airlines flight before he, too, was duct-taped to his seat. 

Riley herself has not faced this kind of violence on a flight. In fact, some people have given her thank-you notes, gift cards and treats to make her feel valued for her role in preserving flight safety. But she said she's experienced many “heated” instances, where she's had to confront a passenger multiple times, leaving her on edge.

For example, almost every flight, there would be someone who'd refuse to comply with the flight mask mandate. Some people would “(complain) about their freedoms” while others would argue they're “actively eating,” even bringing candy aboard and snacking one piece at a time. Riley said she witnessed one family bring 12 bags of candy and try to eat it throughout the whole flight.

“It’s really tough to enforce when people are eating, but you can tell that they’re walking that fine line of what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “These conversations are not easy, but again, we’re just trying to do our job.”

When trying to enforce the airline mask mandate, she'd wonder to herself, “Is somebody going to comply, or are they going to fight back? We see that on a day-to-day basis," she said. 

Because her No. 1 priority is the safety of the flight, she often had to de-escalate situations that “could become aggressive.”

“People think that we’re just policing or abusing our authority, but what we’re doing is ensuring that everyone gets where they need to be safely," she said.

End of the mask mandate

Riley found about the mask mandate ending Monday from a news article. At first, she thought it couldn't be real. "It just got extended for another two weeks. There's no way," she said she remembers thinking.

Her airline later released guidance stating that masks are optional for employees. Riley and her husband will continue to wear a mask, she said.

"We feel like taking precautions, whether they be extreme or erring on the side of caution, that's just important for us," she said. "As parents, we have to constantly think of what our actions and what our duties are for our family and for our children, and this is one of those."

Riley expects to continue to feel "on edge" going into work each day. She worries this next phase will bring new conflicts, such as seating arrangements. Some people may not feel comfortable sitting next to someone who is not wearing a mask.

"What's the next conflict going to be?" she said she's asking herself now.

The suddenness with which the rules changed have also caused "constant confusion and chaos," she said. Videos posted to social media showed some passengers cheering and taking their masks off after the change was announced mid-flight. Others kept theirs on.

"It just made us look unprepared and very confused, and you don't want that from safety professionals," she said.

As a member of AFA-CWA, Riley said she has resources and support to handle the current stresses of her job. Part of her flight attendant training was learning to be observant and ready for anything.

Still, prior to the pandemic, she'd never seen so many passengers be “so strongly opinionated on one specific thing,” she said. Now that masks are optional, she expects those strong feelings to result in her "constantly putting out these fires" between passengers.

"That's going to be a whole other role for us to take on," she said.

Like many people, Riley said flight attendants just want to have a “sense of normalcy” in their jobs again.

“We just want to be able to show up with a smile on our face and give that service to people where they can tell that we care. ... I hope that people see that we absolutely care,” she said. “But again, most importantly, we’re there for their safety.”