OUT OF THE BLUE
Tea or melle?
By Elliott Hester
air travel has changed drastically since 1967, when Trudy Baker
and Rachel Jones co-authored "Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited
Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses." Back then, before
the days of deregulation when DC-9s ruled the airways, and
"discount airfare" was an oxymoron passengers dressed
to impress. The in-flight meal service was something to look forward
to. Airplanes landed on time, for the most part. And frequent-flyer
upgrades had yet to bring the masses to first class.
These days, however, it's not unusual to see passengers wearing
tank tops and flip flops. In-flight meals are paltry, or nonexistent.
Gate agents endure the wrath of frequent flyers who didn't get a
first-class upgrade. And on-time performance is worse than it's
These issues pique my ire, not only because I'm a passenger. But
because I'm a flight attendant a foot-soldier in the airline
Because flight attendants spend more time with passengers than do
other airline employee groups, we're often hit by the bricks that
passengers want to hurl at less reachable targets: baggage handlers,
catering chefs, aircraft cabin designers, and CEO millionaires with
golden parachutes that make them twice as rich upon retirement
even if passenger service goes belly up in the process.
Flight attendants don't design overhead bins that can scarcely accommodate
a tote bag, yet we're yelled at when there's not enough room for
another monster carry-on. We don't establish short connection times,
though we bear the brunt of passenger rage when they come stumbling
onto the aircraft after a 30-minute sprint from gate Z-29.
We don't determine seat pitch, the boarding hierarchy, or whether
passengers should be served peanuts or lobster. And we certainly
did not build a ticket-pricing structure that quotes six different
fares for the same seat. All this is left up to management number
crunchers who sit in an office, far away from seething, fist-clenching,
flight attendant-hating passengers who vent frustrations as they
board the airplane.
Speed and altitude notwithstanding, flying in a commercial jet is
not much different than riding in a Greyhound bus. You pay the cheapest
round-trip fare available, inch sideways down a narrow aisle, toss
your carry-on in the overhead, squeeze into a tiny seat next to
a stranger whose butt is as wide and unruly as the Australian outback,
then try to read, sleep, or stare out the window until you pull
into the terminal in Boise or Orlando.
Despite advertising campaigns that suggest a level of comfort one
might expect aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, air travel, in its purest
main-cabin form, is little more than public transportation. Greyhound
at 30,000 feet. Amtrak with wings.
But when violence erupts on a bus or train, the driver slams on
the breaks and kicks offending passengers to the curb. There's no
such luxury on an airplane.
Like bank security guards who empty trash cans between robbery attempts,
flight attendants serve chicken and beef between episodes of air
rage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When called upon to evacuate
an aircraft during an emergency, we're the last to go down the slide.
Occasionally, we die on the job.
Last November, an American Airlines Airbus A300 experienced "pressurization"
problems shortly after takeoff from Miami International Airport.
When the plane returned to MIA, flight attendants were ordered to
evacuate. While attempting to open a jammed emergency exit, Jose
Chiu, a 34-year-old purser, was literally sucked out of the aircraft
and hurled to the concrete tarmac.
Not long ago, while working a flight from New York to Miami, I dealt
with a different kind of crisis. There was a thunderstorm ahead.
Apparently our pilots could not steer clear of it. The aircraft
began to vibrate in harsh, rhythmic thumps, as if it were a speed
boat traversing a choppy sea. A first-class passenger a pompous
traveler who had dismissed me with a flick of his hand suddenly
began jabbing his flight attendant call button.
As I approached, he tightened his seat belt and stared at me wide-eyed
like a soldier awaiting the lieutenant's command. (During moments
like these, even the most condescending passenger will bestow upon
flight attendants a level of respect that is usually reserved for
priests and emergency room practitioners).
"Jesus!" he shouted, having developed an impromptu relationship
with Christ. "When is this shaking going to stop!"
I stood beside him, trying not to smirk.
"It'll be fine, sir," I said. "We've gone through
worse than this."
After another jolt, he began screaming like a frightened child.
"Hold me!" he pleaded. "Hold me!"
Through exacerbating turbulence I held him. When he began to cry
I held him tighter. I could feel his heart beating in my chest,
his wet tears spreading across the front placket of my uniform shirt.
In a spate of self-flagellation, he apologized for being rude, for
being obnoxious, for being that which he vowed never again to be.
In 16 years of service I've flown to nearly 100 destinations in
23 countries and seen more than my share of in-flight theatrics.
I once saw a drunken couple puke on each other until they looked
as if they'd emerged from an oatmeal bath. I watched happy-go-lucky
lovers join the Mile-High Club during an all-nighter from Los Angeles
to New York. I witnessed a daring heist in which $500,000 was stolen
from the cargo hold of a 727. I've seen full-blown airplane brawls,
passenger stampedes, a flight attendant in the midst of a nervous
breakdown, and stressed-out flyers attempting to open the emergency
exit six miles above the Atlantic.
Having dealt with such madness for nearly two decades, having ducked
punches and calmed nerves and gazed sullenly as yet another passenger
whipped out his willy and peed in front of startled frequent flyers,
I've come to the conclusion that at least two percent of the traveling
public is certifiably insane.
The percentage is slightly higher for cabin crew.