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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Heroes Of The Skies: Flight Attendants, 9/11 And Now

On this 9/11, spare a thought for flight attendants.

Thirteen years ago, they were among the heroes in the sky. But even on an everyday basis, these women and men rarely get credit for showing grace under the pressure of some of the toughest jobs in the world.

In the 9/11 attacks, 25 flight attendants — 20 women and five men — died in the line of duty.

The oldest was Lorraine Bay, 58, on Flight 93, which took off from Newark and crashed in Pennsylvania. The youngest was Jean Rogér, 24, on Flight 11, which left from Boston before the terrorists took over, hitting the World Trade Center's north tower.

The dead included husband and wife Kenneth and Jennifer Lewis on Flight 77, which left Washington before hijackers crashed it into the Pentagon. Renée May, 39, on Flight 77, was pregnant. Her listing on the 9/11 Memorial reads “Renée A. May and her unborn child.”

The flight attendants showed incredible presence of mind on 9/11, even as they had to know that they were in mortal danger.

On Flight 11, attendants Madeline Sweeney, Sara Low and Betty Ann Ong teamed up to call their American Airlines colleagues on the ground. They explained what was happening and even described the people who had taken over their plane, helping investigators confirm that terror attacks were underway.

On Flight 93, the information that flight attendants garnered from similar conversations with people on the ground helped the crew and passengers decide to overtake the hijackers, avoiding more civilian deaths.

But beyond the heroics, attendants have had a tough decade.

After 9/11, countless people avoided flying altogether. New York's three major airports saw yearly passenger traffic fall by 11.2 million people, or a whopping 12 percent, from 2000 to 2002.

But if flight crews wanted to keep their jobs, they had to get back in the air. They had to help anxious passengers and live through false alarms even as they, too, scanned for potential terrorists.

That is, if they kept their jobs.

Despite federal bailouts, 9/11 crushed America's airlines — and the industry took another big hit after the housing bubble ended.

In 2000, 126,380 people worked in the United States as flight attendants. By 2003, more than 22,000 people had lost their jobs; those left numbered 104,360.

And the job losses didn't stop. Today, 93,550 people work as flight attendants, nearly 33,000 fewer than in 2000. Flight attendants, unionized or not, also took pay and hours cuts. Today, the average wage is $43,860, below the $45,220 flight attendants earned in 2000, even as the cost of living has gone up.

Domestic airlines have dealt with a tough decade by packing ever-smaller planes more tightly, discouraging people from checking bags and ending in-flight meals.

Who suffers? The flight crew.

Attendants have to deal with people who bring all of their earthly belongings onto a single-aisle jet, with parents who somehow have failed to learn that their small children have small bladders and that planes sometimes encounter runway delays and with bigger Americans who fight with each other for smaller seat spaces.

And though attendants on international flights have fared better, they, too, face pressure.

Newer airlines from the Middle East and Asia, often subsidized by their governments, are now competing with US carriers on the most lucrative long-haul flights. They can pay their Third World-dwelling crews much lower salaries.

For all that, flight attendants are expected to look like strippers — despite living lives of constant dehydration, inner-ear damage and unpredictable sleep schedules thanks to ever-changing hours, jet lag and bad hotels.

Who hasn't heard some clever idiot make the joke that 40 years ago, before deregulation and cost-cutting, flight attendants were younger, skinnier and prettier?

“What happened to hot stewardesses?” mused one wag back in 2011, commiserating with a colleague who'd noted “the decline in physical appeal of flight attendants.”

You can bet that 13 years ago, the attendants who used whispered phone calls to help the world understand what had happened to them — and to the world — weren't worried about their lipstick.

Or maybe they were — flight attendants know how to do two things at once.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post