OUT OF THE BLUE
Flights return to "normalcy"
By Elliott Hester
At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 13, less than 24 hours after
American Airlines Flight 587 went down in New York, crew members based
at Miami International Airport prepared for another day of flying.
Dressed in uniform blue and shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, they parked
their cars in the employee lot, boarded the shuttle bus, and rode
to the airport in silence.
As the bus lurched to a halt in front of Terminal "A", pilots and
flight attendants rose in unison wiping sleep from their eyes,
snatching company-issue rollaboards from the luggage rack, then stepping
one by one through the open door, like paratroopers heading toward
a drop zone.
One flight attendant fell out of formation before reaching the exit,
however. She lingered in front of the luggage rack, peering at the
cluster of remaining bags in a vain attempt at finding her own. She
looked left, right, then left again, mired in apparent confusion.
I stood with a group of colleagues on the asphalt, waiting for the
flight attendant to locate her bag. The bus idled. Passengers shuffled
in their seats. Had someone mistakenly taken her rollaboard? Had she
forgotten to transfer the bag from her car to the bus? The flight
attendant just stood there, staring. Suddenly, her hands cupped her
face and she nearly burst into tears.
Normally, I might have scurried toward the terminal. I was late for
a flight, after all. Dressed in civilian clothes and headed for a
Los Angeles vacation that plane crashes and terrorist threats could
not (and never will) deter, I wanted to stake out my place on the
employee stand-by list. But since Sept. 11, the bond between crew
members has strengthened. Many of us, especially those at United and
American, have attended employee memorial services and cried in the
arms of colleagues we hardly knew. We've endured workplace tragedies
beyond our wildest nightmares, then returned to face a flying public
that is occasionally infuriated and infuriating. So even though I
was out of uniform and in a hurry, I felt compelled to wait, along
with uniformed crew members, for the colleague who could not find
The woman standing beside me explained our colleague's behavior. "This
is her first trip since the attacks," she said, gesturing toward the
glassy-eyed attendant who suddenly yanked the missing bag from the
heap (it had been laying right beneath her nose all along). "She's
a little nervous." That's when the attendant in question stumbled
from the bus and joined us.
I noticed her hair was frazzled. There were dark, bloated circles
beneath her eyes. Even her cheeks appeared swollen. I got the impression
she'd been crying every day during her self-imposed two-month hiatus.
And with the previous day's news, the flood gates no doubt released
a fresh flow of tears. Now here she was, swollen face and all, ready
to rejoin the troops.
I'm not sure how she fared on her trip, but I hope her passengers
were empathetic. I hope they didn't go ballistic when she forgot to
deliver that second can of Coke, or when she spilled the cup of coffee,
or when she apologized for the nonexistent meal service. Yeah, I hope
they empathized. And I hope she reacted in kind. Passengers have had
to put up with long lines, flight delays, and jittery emotions of
But in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, some passengers displayed
uncommon acts of kindness. "God bless you," one woman told a flight
attendant friend. "Thank you for working today," said another. People
smiled as if seeing our faces for the very first time. A spirit of
camaraderie floated through the cabin. Condolences, handshakes, assurances
of back-up in the event of in-flight turmoil these offerings
were rife throughout the system. But as the skies return to "normalcy,"
so have verbal transgressions.
During a recent flight, a woman told me she had ordered a special
dietary meal. I checked her name against those on the special meal
list. There were three names and three corresponding meals (one kosher,
one low-sodium, and a fruit platter), neither of which belonged to
her, unfortunately. When I delivered the news but before I
could offer an option the passenger erupted. "This sucks!"
she said, hurling an angry, disbelieving glare. Before I could ask
if she'd changed her flight within 48 hours prior to departure (an
act that would have canceled the meal), before I could find out whether
her travel agent placed the order (sometimes they forget), before
I could offer to assemble a plate of vegetables from first-class,
before any of this, she yelled loud enough to turn heads. "This sucks!"
I wanted to say, "No Ma'am . This doesn't suck. Terrorism sucks.
Memorial services suck. The furlough of 100,000 airline employees
sucks. Here we are, flying safely from point A to point B the
seat adjacent to you is unoccupied, the cabin temperature is just
right, turbulence is mercifully absent, and the plane is scheduled
to arrive ahead of schedule but because your special meal is
a no-show (hmmmm . everyone else's is onboard), you're ready to have
I wanted to release this tirade, but I didn't. Not simply because
it would have been inappropriate and unfair. But because at that very
moment I realized that maybe, in some strange way, the passenger's
outburst was a good thing. Fear spawns repression and quietude. But
as confidence returns to the airways, so returns the voices of complaint.