Photo: Getty Images
For Prakriti, a flight attendant currently working for one of Qatar Airways’ premier carriers, the idea of flying for a living seemed to be an escape from the mundane, suffocating alleyways of Khirki Extension, New Delhi, where she grew up.“I just had to get out of it,” she told VICE, preferring not to share her last name to avoid legal troubles. “The first time I flew in 2011 as an air hostess was just magical.”
However, in her first week on her dream job, she had to face a particularly obnoxious, champagne-sipping octogenarian businessman in the first-class section. Flashing his high-end luxury watch, he gestured to her for a refill. “The bizarre aspect of this was that he wanted me to pour the champagne right into his mouth,” she said. “They had trained us on how to behave with such requests, but my childhood fear of intimidating authority figures got in the way and I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there dumbfounded.” Prakriti is not alone. The internet is filled with harrowing stories of flight attendants going through similar experiences, especially when they’re new on the job. Rich people bossing them around with eccentric demands can often leave them confused or rattled. Steffi Kingham, who is based in Mumbai, India, is on a sabbatical after flying for almost a decade with various airlines. She recounted how a junior member in one of her cabin crews faced a similar ordeal. “We usually have a standard policy to not serve more than two drinks to passengers, though depending on how they handle it, we can even serve more,” she said. “In this particular case, the gentleman was clearly buzzed and kept asking for more. The junior flight attendant in my crew then offered him a sandwich to calm him down. He took it and then just aggressively flung it on her face.”
Kingham’s colleague, much like Prakriti, also froze. “I intervened and firmly told him this was no way to be. Bangkok, the destination, was just an hour away. We didn’t serve him anything until then.” However, this impacted her colleague immensely, who was visibly disconcerted and upset for days after. Years before the Bangkok incident, Kingham had encountered another unusual request: her hand in marriage. “I was chatting with this Canadian lady on my flight, who seemed very friendly. But just 15 minutes into the conversation, she asked me to marry her son and move to Canada with him. And no, she wasn’t kidding.” What followed was five hours of sheer awkwardness until the flight landed in Quebec. “We usually have this unsaid rule that if we encounter a weird passenger who is targeting us, someone else from the crew replaces us when it comes to interacting with them,” said Kingham, who avoided going anywhere near the matchmaking passenger for the rest of the flight. She had to bear with the lady staring at her for the rest of the flight, though.Maithili, who often flew on long-distance flights before the pandemic, recounted her own share of weird experiences. “I was once on a flight to Dubai, and in the business class was a woman with three kids under the age of ten, all of whom seemed tired and cranky,” she said, asking to be referred to only by her first name. “She told me their nanny had fallen sick and hence, she needed us to keep her kids entertained while she caught a nap. She literally asked if I or even the pilot knew any magic tricks so her kids would not disturb her while she slept. When we turned her offer down, she flew into a rage and threw a fit, which ended up with all her kids crying and us scrambling to soothe them.”
Globally, instances of “air rage” by privileged, rich people have only increased, particularly after the pandemic. A recent survey found that nearly 85 percent of flight attendants routinely face abuse on flights. In May, San Diego authorities arrested a 28-year-old woman for felony assault after she physically attacked a flight attendant who lost two teeth and sustained other injuries to her face. Two months later, another passenger in a flight from Philadelphia to Miami had to be taped to his seat and later arrested after he groped and punched the cabin crew. Before punching, he’d reportedly screamed that his parents were worth $2 million. Jiang Quan, who was a flight attendant for 11 years before going on a sabbatical, faced a wildly surreal proposal during a long-haul flight from Beijing to Ürümqi in China.
“There was a man on board who wouldn’t stop staring at my legs,” she told VICE. “This actually isn’t anything new. So many lascivious men do it unabashedly, like it’s their hobby. But then, he told me straight-up that he wanted to marry me. I just laughed it off, but he was serious. I think he didn’t want to marry me though, just my legs.” In Quan’s case, her colleagues couldn’t come to her rescue. An elderly man on the flight had hyperventilated when they hit a patch of bad weather and then fainted. “So, I had no option but to make small talk with the man and just keep at it. He had a deadpan expression throughout, but toward the end of the flight, he offered me to be his sugar baby.” It turns out, requests to become sugar babies to wealthy, middle-aged men come by quite often in this profession, an experience both Kingham and Prakriti confirmed as being commonplace. The assumption is that the flight attendants would not be making much money and hence, would jump on such opportunities, they said. “A very famous Sri Lankan cricketer, travelling alone, told me how I had red eyes,” recounted another flight attendant, Aparajita, currently working for a newly launched airline. She asked not to reveal her surname in this story, too.The cricketer concluded that Aparajita had not been sleeping well, and assumed this was because she might be going through a breakup. “Seemingly in good faith, he said he wanted to pull me out of my ‘misery’ and offered to be my sugar daddy.” For Aparajita, this was all the more disturbing because her boyfriend at the time was a huge fan of the cricketer in question. “When I told him about what happened, he refused to believe it. And that broke my heart more than the actual incident,” she said. “He kept showing me the cricketer’s adorable interactions with fans and media. Of course, I broke up with him the very next day.” Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.