How to cope with stress during piloting/flight attending hours?


Probably most of you have noticed the news’ headlines stating that 2012 was the safest year in aviation so far. This was firmly confirmed by IATA and supported by the corresponding figures and charts. Despite the positive trend, several articles which appeared during the year told the stories of pretty intense situations which occurred before, during or after the flight and were caused by irrational behaviour of flight crew. Fortunately, all of those incidents were handled safely, though they do encourage us to look back at the year from a different perspective.

In March 2012, an American Airlines’ flight attendant disrupted a flight saying over the aircraft intercom system that the plane was going to crash, recalling to 9/11 terrorist attacks and ranting about the airline’s bankruptcy reorganization. Then there was the JetBlue Airways captain who disrupted a Las Vegas-bound flight in April 2012 after he left the cockpit screaming about religion and terrorism. In September 2012, an American Airlines’ flight was forced to head back to the gate after a dispute between its two flight attendants, which had arisen while pushing away from the terminal for departure.

All these examples call for a serious talk about the factors causing such unexpected flight crew meltdowns. Undoubtedly, one of the most influential aspects is the huge amount of stress that pilots and cabin crew face during their duty time. The pressure for commercial airline pilots is extremely high as they are not only expected to guarantee the safety of passengers by making all decisions and tasks with extreme concentration, but also to keep their flights on-time, even when flying in inclement weather. Unsurprisingly, a commercial airline pilot’s job had found its place in the CareerCast’s top 3 of the most stressful jobs in 2012, standing right after the ones of an enlisted soldier and a fire-fighter. Cabin crew is no exception either. And if you think it is, you probably have not yet heard about an Armavia airline flight attendant, who helped to deliver a baby aboard a plane flying to Armenia.

According to experts, there are many factors that contribute to flight crew stress, but they are generally classified into three categories: physical, physiological or psychological. Physical stressors include extreme temperature and humidity, noise, vibration and lack of oxygen. Physiological stressors include such factors as fatigue, poor physical condition or hunger. Psychological stressors relate to such emotional factors as a death or illness in the family, business worries, poor interpersonal relationships with family or boss and financial worries, especially common if the airline one is working for is likely to dismiss some pilots or go bankrupt. As you may notice, physical stressors are those that may arise aboard, while physiological and psychological stressors are brought from the external environment. Anyway, all of them add up to an already demanding role.

If a stressful situation occurs aboard there are three essential steps to help cabin crew cope with the overall problem. The first one, the importance and effectiveness of which has been emphasized by experts, is taking the command of deep breathing. This means being aware of your breathing rate and taking slow, deep breaths. The next step is learning to control muscle tension. You have to identify which muscles are tense and release them. Finally, you have to take the command of cognitive process. In other words, medical experts advise to be aware of your internal ‘self-talk’ and change the highly focused, negative and self-defeating thoughts into positive thinking and intuitive creativity. Naturally, this step is the most difficult and needs lots of effort and concentration.

While physical stressors such as turbulence or reduced amount of oxygen cannot be felt or foreseen prior to the actual flight, physiological and psychological stressors definitely can. It is essential for the flight crew to pay the utmost attention to potential stressors and be able to recognize when the stress levels caused by those factors are getting too high. Identifying them in advance will help to avoid unpleasant situations and unexpected meltdowns. If you feel that the stress level is getting too high, it is highly advisable to ask for some time off. Ask for some help from the first officer, captain or a partnering flight attendant. The flight crew must be educated to understand that the safety of the flying public needs to be a priority. Furthermore, management should encourage rather than discriminate pilots and flight attendants who come forward and admit they are going through a difficult time. Admitting your high level of stress does not mean you are weak; it means you are strong.