“Pretty much everyone on the plane threw up” is not a sentence most travelers want to hear.
But that’s a direct quote from the pilots’ report after United Express Flight 3833 operated by Air Wisconsin hit extreme turbulence on approach to Washington, DC, in 2018.
Extreme turbulence is on the rise around the world. It isn’t just nauseating or scary — it’s dangerous.
In June 2017, nine passengers and a crew member were hospitalized after extreme turbulence rocked their United Airlines flight from Panama City to Houston.
A few weeks ago, a Delta Connection flight operated by Compass Airlines from Orange County, California, to Seattle hit turbulence so sudden and fierce, the flight attendant serving drinks — and the 300-pound drink cart — was slammed against the ceiling of the plane. The flight attendant’s arm was broken and three passengers were hospitalized.
In my 23 years as a flight attendant and president of our union representing 50,000 others, I know firsthand the threat climate change poses to our safety and our jobs. But flight attendants and airline workers have been told by some pundits that the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey’s environmental proposal, will ground all air travel.
That’s absurd. It’s not the solutions to climate change that kills jobs. Climate change itself is the job killer.
Climate change is already changing flight attendants’ lives
Severe turbulence is becoming more frequent and intense due in part to climate change. Research indicates that rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere cause disruptions to the jet streams and create dangerous wind shears that greatly increase turbulence, especially at moderate latitudes where the majority of air travel occurs.
For flight attendants and passengers alike, that dangerous, shaky feeling in midair comes from air currents shifting. Clear air turbulence, or CAT, is the most dangerous. It cannot be seen and is virtually undetectable with current technology. One second, you’re cruising smoothly; the next, passengers and crew are being thrown around the cabin. For flight attendants, who are often in the aisles, these incidents pose a serious occupational risk.
Leading atmospheric scientists don’t mince words about the forecast. According to a study by professor Paul D. Williams and his colleagues at the University of Reading in the UK, CAT is expected to more than double by midcentury, and turbulence “strong enough to catapult unbuckled passengers and crew around the aircraft cabin” is expected to double or triple.
There’s an economic cost, too. Turbulence is already costing US airlines $200 million per year, with damage to aircraft plus injuries to passengers and crew. That number will skyrocket as extreme incidents increase. Costs are passed on to consumers and used to justify cuts to pay, benefits, and staffing levels for crew.
Turbulence is a threat to safety and economic security, but it’s only part of the harm caused by climate change. As extreme weather events become more common, more and more flights never take off at all. Grounded flights mean lost pay for flight attendants, who earn an hourly wage while we’re in the air.
When the polar vortex plunged most of the US into a deep freeze in January, airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights. Over the past two summers, flights in Phoenix and Salt Lake City were canceled due to excessive heat.
Wildfires in the West reduced visibility, slowed frequency of landings, and rerouted planes. Hurricanes and floods damaged airport infrastructure and altered flight service for weeks and months as battered islands and cities struggled to recover. Thunderstorms and severe winter storms strand more passengers and airline crews each year. And as the planet warms, we’re seeing more and more severe versions of nearly all of these weather events.
Climate change affects our home lives, too, as extreme events fueled by warming wreak havoc on US communities. More flight attendants applied for assistance from our union’s disaster relief fund in the past year than in the 16 previous years combined.
We need solutions that put workers first
Flight attendants’ jobs and lives are in danger if we don’t put a stop to this. But we also know the threat is far bigger than just aviation. If we don’t act swiftly, it will ground aviation and hurt the global community.
The aviation industry is leaning in to abate its contribution to climate change. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted a resolution to align aviation with the goals set by the Paris climate accords. This is not the first action aviation has taken. Over the past 30 years, manufacturers have cut aircraft emissions in half, equivalent to taking 25 million cars off the road each of those years. The industry is working on low-emission alternative fuels and increased battery capacity to reduce its carbon footprint.
Aviation isn’t alone. We all want clean air, water, and to protect our children and their children from climate catastrophe. But working in silos will not achieve the change we need. The best way to work toward that is to fight together. Organized labor can also attack this: Unions were among the first to fight for our environment. In 1990, United Steelworkers said that global warming “may be the single greatest problem we face,” and in 2002, the United Mine Workers of America were arrested fighting the environmental practices of Massey Energy.
Our federal government must spearhead a national mobilization that brings these efforts together, harnesses American ingenuity, creates millions of well-paying union jobs, and saves the planet for our children. That is the vision of the Green New Deal resolution. It’s the moonshot of our time.
But architects and proponents of the Green New Deal also need to address the history of the “fair and just transition” the resolution promises. Too many communities have heard those words, only to see jobs disappear while the promise of retraining and new jobs never materializes. Workers are skeptical, and the opponents of meaningful action are taking advantage of that distrust.
If we can’t overcome suspicion that tackling climate change just means job loss, we’ll never enlist workers — or millions of others in jobs that rely on carbon-based fuels — in the solution.
Climate change is happening now. We need to get serious about it. Aspiring to achieve a green economy with good union jobs that leave no one behind is exactly the solution we need to fight climate change and provide opportunity for all Americans.
As we do this together, remember too: You should really listen when your flight attendant tells you to keep your seatbelt fastened.
Sara Nelson is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the flight attendant union representing 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines. Find her on Twitter @FlyingWithSara.
First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.