of a Continental Drifter
Destinations & Diversions / Travel / January 11, 2002
BUCKLE UP FOR PLANE INSANITY
"I never wanted to be a flight attendant,"
writes Elliott Hester in the introduction to his new book, Plane
Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness
at 30,000 Feet (St. Martin's Press, $23.95). But anyone who has
ever had the urge to peek behind the galley curtain and ask the
flight crew what really goes on at 30,000 feet will be glad he
did. Hester, a 16-year employee at a major airline (he isn't saying
which one), has written a tell-all that is part confessional and
part payback to all those rude, smelly and obnoxious people he
has flown with over the years. Here, he shares with USA TODAY's
Jayne Clark some of his insights from his time aloft.
Q: Your book is very funny. But is it OK to laugh about airborne
high jinks in light of Sept. 11?
A: It is if you let it be. We can't sit
around on airplanes or anywhere else and not laugh. It's our nature
Q: Actually, many of the laughs in your book come from awful incidents
– getting vomited on, breaking up brawls, dealing with drunken
A: Most of the incidents were not necessarily
funny at the time. But everything in the book is true.
Q: Have passengers changed since Sept. 11?
A: Initially, there was this tremendous
outpouring of camaraderie. People looked in my eyes and for the
first time in 16 years thanked me. There was a sense after 9/11
that the traveling public realized we're all in this together.
It's gone back to normal somewhat.
Q: Is air rage dead?
A: Pilots are definitely less willing to
put up with (bad behavior). That's a good thing, in a way. I had
a friend who was punched by a passenger, and it broke her jaw.
They just put the passenger on another flight, and he went on
his way. That will never happen again. First, the passengers won't
allow it. (Before) flight attendants and passengers were so afraid
of being sued, they wouldn't (intervene) unless it was life or
Q: Is the passengers' rights movement dead, too?
A: It's taken a back seat, but in the long
run it'll have to come back. I'm a passenger, too, so I understand
the frustration from both sides. One of the issues is information,
and one of the problems is the flight crew doesn't always know.
We're waiting for a man in a little room in Tulsa to tell us whether
to wait for connecting passengers, or whatever. And sometimes
you don't want to know the reason for the delay. Remember the
Swissair pilot who got arrested for lewdness in Central Park?
Do you really want to hear, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're
not flying on time because our pilot is a pervert"?
Q: Your book is chock-full of miscreants and buffoons. Who takes
the prize for the worst passenger you've encountered?
A: There are categories of worst, but one
sticks out. This guy had ordered a special meal that was served
by mistake to his brother, who was sitting in a different row.
I apologized, and he told me to take my excuse and shove it up
my a__ . I lost it. I said, "I guess he doesn't want me to
take my excuse out of my a__ and serve it to him, so I guess he's
not eating." It was one of two times in my career I was unprofessional.
Q: What was the other time?
A: The other was a food-related incident
as well, which is one reason I should work for Southwest Airlines.
They don't serve food.
Q: What comes over some people at 30,000 feet? Or are they jerks
at any altitude?
There are a certain percentage of people who are just difficult
to deal with wherever they are. But there's also something that
happens to people when they get on an airplane. It has something
to do with confinement. And it has something to do with someone
who you consider a lesser person telling you what to do. You have
an (executive) and a 22-year-old from Kansas City telling him
to put his seat belt on and he can't do this or that, and people
in that position don't like that. Plus, passengers will sometimes
do things to make themselves feel more empowered. For example,
a guy on one flight kept pressing his call light, and he wouldn't
put on his seat belt. I pulled him back to the galley and said,
"What's wrong?" And he said, "I just hate to fly."
Q: But a lot of bad behavior is alcohol fueled, isn't it?
A: I follow air rage stories. The vast majority
of those incidents are due to alcohol consumption.
Q: Some industry people propose banning alcohol from flights.
Do you agree?
A: There are a large number of people who
probably rely on alcohol to calm their nerves. And if you take
away alcohol, you're going to have a whole new class of people
acting crazy. The same thing happened when we banned cigarettes.
Q: Do flight attendants favor working a particular section of
A: It depends on the person. I prefer coach.
There tends to be a lot more attitude in first class, and ironically
it's from the upgrades, not the full-fare passengers. People who
haven't flown first class that often can be more demanding.
Q: Does anyone pay for first class anymore?
A: Oh, yes. But the majority in first class
are probably upgrades. When I was hired in 1985, the first-class
cabin was empty. Now it's always full.
Q: And then there are what you call the "high-altitude ninjas,"
who sneak into first class. Do people actually get away with that?
A: They try all the time. I had a Catholic
priest who tried it. He was in uniform. My seat count was off,
so I asked to see his boarding pass. It was for 28D. He said,
"Oh, I thought it was 3A."
Q: Did you let him stay, considering he was a man of the cloth?
A: No. It's not so much that flight attendants
are cruel jail keepers. But people sitting in the center seat
in the back get wind of it, and then everything falls apart. I
wish all the seats were first class and we served caviar and lobster
and we sang Kumbaya as we climbed. But they aren't, and the company
makes its money on first class. Those seats are major marketing
tools for the airline.
Q: Is there a particular route flight attendants dread?
A: Every flight has a personality, and every
destination has a personality within that. On a Chicago to Des
Moines route, I guarantee about every flight is going to be smooth
as pie. People are very polite. You fly between New York and Miami,
it's different. People speak different languages. They have different
cultural beliefs. (On some routes) people tend to be very demanding.
They can't understand that it's impossible to cook a steak medium-rare
in a convection oven.
Q: Flight attendants stress their safety and service functions.
But you fill other roles like referee, babysitter and therapist.
Is this part of the job?
A: When you're first hired, you don't expect
it. But as you start to fulfill it, you realize there are more
aspects to the job than you thought. Like stopping people from
Q: Even cops hate that.
A: I gained a lot of my experience from
having been a bartender. You analyze the problem before you make
accusations or threats. You can't teach that in flight-attendant
Q: Do they teach you how to tell someone they stink?
A: That's a tough one. But I'm forced to
if other passengers are (complaining). Every major airline has
a stipulation they can deny boarding to a person who stinks –
they call it "foul body odor." Mostly people just grin
and bear it. But once in Caracas, a couple boarded and I could
smell them halfway down the aisle.
Q: You cited the airline regulation?
A: No, I passed the buck. I told them they
had to see the purser. The man asked why, and I said, "Quite
frankly, the passengers are complaining about your body odor."
He was incensed. The captain came back, and, finally, they left
the airplane. But first they said that thing passengers always
say when they're about to be kicked off the airplane: I'm never
flying this &%$#@! airline again!
Q: And what did you say?