of a Continental Drifter
Don George, Traveler at Large
COLUMN #42 / January, 2002
By Don George
As a flight attendant for a major US airline
for many years, Elliott Hester has seen an eye-opening, hair-raising
array of airborne misbehavior. Hester approached me in early 1999,
when I was travel editor at Salon.com, with the idea of writing
a column about the flight attendant's life. That column, Out of
the Blue, proved extremely popular and when Salon stopped publishing
travel articles, Hester began syndicating it to newspaper travel
sections. Now he has taken the best of his old tales and added
some new ones and put them together in a thoroughly enlightening
and entertaining new book, Plane Insanity. I spoke with him earlier
this week about the flight attendant's life.
Don: A few decades ago, being a flight attendant was one of the
most glamorous jobs people could conceive of. How has the work
changed since you first became a flight attendant?
Elliott: In an unending effort to turn a
profit in today's competitive market, airlines have learned to
make more efficient use of airplanes and crews. As a result, our
workdays are longer. Under our union contract, we can't work longer
than a 14-hour day, but those 14-hour days are a lot more common
than they used to be. And under certain circumstances they can
be stretched to 16 hours. Plus we have to be at work an hour ahead
In addition, layovers have gotten shorter. Layovers often used
to include time to enjoy a nice dinner and at least a quick trip
to the beach or to do some shopping, but with the tight schedules
today, we often arrive in a place at 9 or 10 pm and then leave
on the first flight out. There are still some exceptions, of course,
but often these days, we literally have no time except to sleep.
What's a typical day in the life of a flight attendant? What are
the main duties you have to perform?
We have to arrive at the airport an hour
ahead of time. We're responsible for checking the emergency equipment,
then we have a briefing by the captain concerning any weather
problems or safety issues and a briefing by the purser concerning
any particular passenger information we need to know - for example,
the man in 10A is transporting the body of his just-deceased wife.
We board the passengers, serve drinks and meals (when there are
meals), and deal with any special situations that may arise onboard
- passengers getting sick or fainting. I've had to use defibrillators
a couple of times. And of course we alert the captain to any questionable
behavior. Really, there is no typical day. Every flight has its
own personality. Some days run very smoothly. Other days we'll
experience mechanical delays, flight cancellations, diversions,
sick passengers, irate passengers, and the occasional puking kid.
What are the most challenging aspects of the job?
Some people feel justified in abusing cabin
crew - verbally and physically. Once, a passenger threw a dirty
diaper at one of my colleagues. The diaper hit her square in the
head, leaving baby dung clinging to her hair. The flight attendant
became enraged. She lunged at the passenger and tried to strangle
her. Passengers had to break up the altercation.
What are the perks?
Free travel is the carrot that dangles in
front of our faces. As a matter of fact, it's the only reason
I took the job. If management canceled our flight privileges tomorrow,
I'd quit the next day.
How have passengers changed since you first began working as a
As is the case in other sectors of society,
some passengers have become more aggressive and less patient.
Some seem to be uncaring toward their fellow man. Often I see
people boarding an airplane while talking on a cell phone. They'll
stop in the middle of the aisle, chatting in their own world,
oblivious to the fact that 200 people are stalled behind them.
If we politely ask the cell user to keep moving, he'll sometimes
bark as if we're causing the problem.
How has flying as a whole - the experience of flying and the technology
of flying - changed?
Despite advertising campaigns that suggest
a level of comfort and attention one might expect aboard the Queen
Elizabeth II, air travel, in its purest main-cabin form, has become
little more than public transportation. Greyhound at 30,000 feet.
Amtrak with wings. In the days before deregulation, the emphasis
was on comfort and service. These days, it's all about getting
there as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
Has the job and have the passengers changed noticeably since September
When the skies reopened after 9/11, a sense
of camaraderie filled the airplane cabin. For the first time in
commercial aviation history, passengers and crew seemed to realize
that we're all in this together. An airplane is the only place
where the public has no access to police or security personnel.
September 11th taught us that we have to depend on each other
at 30,000 feet. Those feelings of goodwill and camaraderie have
begun to go back to a normal level - which is natural - but people
still come together again in flashpoints; whenever there's a problem
of some kind, everybody's willing to help.
In your time, you've witnessed some pretty extraordinary behavior
onboard. What examples stand out in your mind?
I watched a Catholic priest puking on his
secular seatmate, and people having sex in their seats. Once,
an elderly woman exited the rear lavatory with her stretch pants
and panties still bunched around her ankles. She made it halfway
up the cabin before a female flight attendant managed to pull
up the fallen garments.
What's the single most outrageous incident you can recall?
As our 727 prepared to depart the Caribbean
island of Curacao, an unauthorized man sneaked onto the tarmac,
ran along the taxiing aircraft, opened the cargo hatch and stole
a bag containing $500,000 in unmarked bills that were being transported
by an armored car company. It's the most brazen act of thievery
I've ever heard of. The assailant (and his two cohorts) got away,
but were arrested weeks later after a wild spending spree attracted
the attention of local authorities.
In retrospect, we can usually shrug off onboard obnoxiousness
or irrational acts - but at the time, passenger misbehavior must
sometimes be pretty terrifying. How do you deal with that?
Flight attendants are trained to diffuse outrageous behavior before
it reaches a critical stage. But when our efforts fail, we've
learned to enlist the help of passengers. After all, it's in everyone's
best interest to keep in-flight violence in check.
Have you ever been truly scared on a flight?
There was one instance where I was working
in coach and I heard a loud outburst of growling. I turned around
and this guy was growling at the woman across the aisle from him,
with a crazy look on his face. When I approached him, I could
see that he'd had three Jack Daniels and beer. I asked him if
I could bring him some food and he looked at me like he was going
to jump me. I stood there frozen, waiting for him to attack me,
and I could feel my whole body tensing. That moment just seemed
to stop. Then he looked out the window and kept growling. One
of the pilots came back and the guy verbally abused him. He was
arrested as soon as we landed. That was as close as I've gotten
to being attacked on an airplane.
But the scariest moment moment was on a flight from Miami to Augadilla,
Puerto Rico. A few minutes before we were supposed to land, the
captain called and said we'd lost both hydraulic systems, which
meant that the landing gear couldn't be automatically deployed.
He told me that we were going to divert from our intended airport,
where it was raining, to San Juan, where the weather was clear.
On the way he was going to try to manually crank down the landing
gear. He announced what was happening and everyone freaked out.
I went out with the flight engineer and ripped out the carpet
in first class. Beneath the carpet was a manhole cover, which
we pried open. Then I pointed a flashlight beam down into the
crevice, where there was an indicator the engineer was looking
for that would let us know if the landing gear was down. He saw
the indicator and it looked OK. We repeated the same process in
the rear of the airplane.
One passenger tried to open the emergency window exit at 22,000
feet - I grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him away. This
sight was really distressing and other passengers started screaming.
Then another passenger left a burning cigarette next to the toilet
paper. Then a couple went into another lavatory and started snorting
cocaine. And finally a really beautiful woman in the last row
wearing a skintight catsuit - and so drunk she had no idea what
was going on - started hitting on me.
The landing was the scariest part. The flight engineer hadn't
been able to reassure me that the landing gear was going to hold
when we landed; we didn't know if it was really locked or not.
I remember distinctly thinking that we were going to crash. Luckily,
the gear held and we were fine.
If you could offer passengers a few words of advice, what would
This may sound like an understatement, but
one of the most important things a passenger can do is eat before
traveling. I can't tell you how many people have gone ballistic
because their blood sugar levels have dropped. Try to eat a good
meal before arriving at the airport. I guarantee your flight will
be more pleasant.
And if you could offer starry-eyed people who still want to become
flight attendants a few words of advice, what would they be?
Finally, what's next for you?
Later this year I hope to take my second
around-the-world trip. But this time I plan to write about it.
Don George is Lonely Planet's Travel Editor.