Air Rage is all the rage…

August 14, 2010 — Leave a comment

America has a new folk hero! More specifically flight attendants around the country have one – maybe their first. But I have a sneaky suspicion all those in the service industry will soon claim him for themselves.

Steven Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant, succumbed to a vitriolic rant at one passenger in particular and the whole plane in general, at the end of a flight from Pittsburgh to New York. He then activated the emergency chute, slid down and legged it home where he was later arrested and charged with reckless endangerment and criminal mischief.

Reports differ. Some say he was provoked when a passenger stood while the plane was still taxiing, ignored the request to ‘please sit’, and then attempted to remove his carry-on from the overhead locker which banged the attendant’s head. When Mr. Slater asked for an apology none was forthcoming. Others suggest the bump to Mr. Slater’s head occurred earlier in the flight and that his manner throughout the short hop had been abrasive.

Slater has become something of a social media sensation though he appears bemused by his fifteen minutes of fame saying he was blown away by the furore, but that it feels neat.

Reading the chatter, listening to friends, many of whom fly a great deal, and speaking to HR personnel, opinion is varied: a sneaking admiration mixed with empathy for the man speaking out against rude passengers, clients, customers the world over, tinged with kinship for the man at the receiving end of the sulphuric public tirade.

When considering Slater’s future within the industry, Jackie Verity of Kaleidoscope Careers says, I have some sympathy for him. People in the customer service industry take a lot of flack, but he would have to go. They are after all trained to deal with difficult customers.

Flying is not a pleasant experience for the passenger, certainly those in cattle class, or it seems for those charged with taking care of them. The assault on the flying public’s senses start the moment you step through airport’s sliding doors. Pico Iyer, the travel writer and philosopher says, airports dissolve all sense of time and place. One might also add courtesy.

A long line of officiousness, all dressed up in uniforms with badges, faces the paying traveller before boarding. Breaching security is a whole other topic. By the time most people have shuffled to a seat, squashed their carry-on into the overhead bin already overflowing with luggage from those ignoring the one-bag rule, and sunk gratefully into their seat only to readjust their position so their knees don’t tickle their chins, feelings are fraught. Meanwhile flight attendants greet passengers with rictal smiles, offering no assistance apart from which aisle to head down, something most know.

I started flying in 1958, six years after BOAC bought their first passenger plane. I was a month old. I flew from London, England to Kano, Nigeria. We went via Rome on a Stratocruiser which took a total of thirteen hours and fifty minutes, over 3,084 miles. This I know from my BOAC Log Book. I was the only baby on board, actually the only child. This is I know from my mother, who travelled with me.

But I do remember subsequent flights when again I was usually the only child on board. I remember the air hostesses as sleek paragons, hair lacquered, scarves fixed in careful folds, pleasant and willing to help. I would sit fidgeting between games of noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe Stateside), wreathed in a halo of smoke from my parent’s cigarettes and wrapped in the warmth of their whisky, lulled through the flight hoping if I was ‘good’ one of the beautiful apparitions in navy blue would approach me.

Would you be a dear and help me offer sweeties to the other passengers? she asked.

I could not wait to grow up and join their glamourous ranks.

Flying is not like that now due, as Verity succinctly said to the commoditisation of the industry. The ease of travel by plane has brought the world much closer in many ways but wherever they come from, rude people are rude people. One of the passenger’s comments described the general attitude of flight attendants, of many airlines it seems to me, when Slater was said have had ‘curt’ interactions with his passengers, a not unusual occurrence.

JetBlue counts itself as one of the most successful budget airlines and were quick to say there had not, at any time, been a safety risk. I would have thought a chute appearing unexpectedly out of the side of a plane would be somewhat of a hazard to anyone standing below.

They are a non-union airline so Slater will not have the weight of an association behind him. He will though have the vast majority of flight attendants bolstering each other when passengers are tiresome with a sly smirk and the words, we could do a Slater and slide the chute. Maybe Stephen Slater’s fifteen minutes of fame will stretch to a new idiom, mulled over by English language students worldwide.

And maybe we should all, passengers and crews alike, just try to travel thoughtfully.

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