By now everyone in the US must have heard about the JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater who got so fed up by the way he was treated by a passenger that he used the intercom to curse her out and left the plane. Grabbing a beer and using the emergency chute to make his dramatic exit was an inspired touch. Slater has become something of a folk hero for his take-this-job-and-shove-it action and I would not be surprised to see a made-for-TV movie about disgruntled flights attendants soon. Slater even became Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Dog of the Week.
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Slater was arrested and is now out on bail, facing charges of reckless endangerment and criminal mischief that could put him in prison for up to seven years, which seems excessive to me. His lawyer has provided more details of what happened.
Flight attendants in general have expressed great sympathy for him, saying that he did what many of them have only fantasized about. My niece worked as a flight attendant for a few years and has her own share of stories about rude and obnoxious people on planes. The following apocryphal story describes the kind of pettiness and self-indulgence that airline workers have to routinely deal with:
In my youth, I was friends with a TWA flight attendant who used to tell this tale: A fellow attendant had just finished serving dinner (so you know how long ago this was), and a woman rang her call button. “This potato,” she said to the attendant, pointing to a small baker on the tray, “is bad.”
He calmly picked up the potato, placed it in the palm of his left hand and shook his right index finger at it, saying in a scolding tone, “Bad potato. Bad, bad potato.” His attempt at humor won him a suspension, my friend said.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Slater should have done what he did and deserves the adulation he has received from some quarters, the whole episode illustrates the inequality and tension that exists between workers in the hospitality industry and the customers.
A couple of years ago my flight was cancelled due to bad weather and there was chaos at the check-in counter as a large number of people tried to find alternative flights. There was only one person to serve all the coach passengers and naturally there were long lines and delays and tempers became frayed, and some people started berating this poor woman although she was not responsible for the mess. Things got so bad that a policeman had to come in to keep some order. I was there for over six hours because I was trying to make an international connection and so was able to observe the fact that this woman did not leave her position even to get food or go to the bathroom but kept a pleasant and smiling face throughout the ordeal, never raising her voice, and standing all the time. It was only late in the evening, after everyone had left and I was the only person remaining that she confided in me that a co-worker had called in sick that day, which was why she was alone, and that she was totally exhausted. I asked her if tough days happened to her often and she ruefully said yes.
One reporter worked as a flight attendant for two days to see what it was like and wrote about her experiences. Her co-workers told her that working first class was harder than coach and that did not surprise me. Airlines themselves are partly responsible for this. In order to get people to fork out extra money for these more profitable upgrades, they have pandered to them that they are so special, giving them all manner of little perks, including laughably ridiculous ones like the little carpet near the boarding gate that ordinary coach passengers are not supposed to step on. It always cracks me up when the person at the gate announces that the proletariat is forbidden to step on that rug. Should we be surprised that some of the pampered people treat flight attendants as their personal servants?
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat those who they perceive as subordinate to them. As Dave Barry once wrote, “A person who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.” The notorious John Bolton, hysterical warmonger and George W. Bush’s choice to be US ambassador to the United Nations, was known to berate his staff while being ingratiating to those he felt were his superiors. He was described by an observer as the “quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy”, adding, “I’ve never seen anyone quite like Secretary Bolton in terms of the way he abuses his power and authority with little people… The fact is that he stands out, that he’s got a bigger kick and it gets bigger and stronger the further down the bureaucracy he’s kicking.”
It is true that modern airline travel is frustrating for passengers. But that does not excuse being nasty to the people who are the public face of that industry because they are not responsible for this state of affairs. In fact, they are as much victims as we are because airlines have cut back on personnel to the minimum, requiring those remaining to work much harder and longer. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who work in the hospitality industry like waiters, flight attendants, hotel employees, and the like. These people are on their feet almost all the time, for pay that is not that great, and are required by their employers to be smiling and friendly and obsequious to everyone. And while most people are polite and considerate, because these workers deal with so many people every day, the odds are that they encounter a fair number of jerks in the course of their work day, people seeking an outlet for their own personal frustrations and demons, who take advantage of them by being abusive and rude, knowing that they have to take it and still keep smiling.
Ideally, we should treat everyone equally and well but that is hard to do in practice. But a good rule-of-thumb is that the less power that people have, the greater effort we should put in to swallow our own irritation and annoyance and be nice to them and show consideration and respect, because they have likely had a much harder day than we did.
POST SCRIPT: Anthem for Steven Slater
I remember when this song was released in 1978 that it struck the same chord with fed up workers that Slater’s actions did.