of a Continental Drifter
Ft Lauderdale, Florida
METRO SECTION: LIVING, January 25, 2002 Friday
AIRBORNE INSANITY: A FLIGHT ATTENDANT TELLS ALL
John Tanasychuk, State Correspondent
Elliott Hester remembers the camaraderie on airplanes the first
few weeks after Sept. 11.
"People said 'God bless you!' and 'Thank
you for coming to work today,' " recalls Hester, a Miami
Beach-based flight attendant. "It was quiet. I've never seen
it so quiet."
Now, flying is a different story.
"As time passed, we've become ourselves
again," says Hester. "In some ways it's a good thing."
It's certainly a good thing for Hester and his first book, Plane
Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness
at 30,000 Feet (St. Martin's Press, $23.95). The insanity comes
courtesy of the flying public and his colleagues – and Hester
He tells of litigious passengers who threaten to sue if they can't
move to first class. He tells of small children, seemingly abandoned
by parents to projectile-vomit in the company of strange airline
attendants. He tells of sexual rapture, drunkenness, fear, fist
fights, flatulence and Big Bertha, the flight attendant from hell.
And he tells it all with the observational skills of a quirky
anthropologist and the timing of a stand-up comic.
Hester devotes one chapter to a notorious midnight flight that
departs daily from New York to Puerto Rico.
"At any time during the flight you
might witness a card game with serious money involved," he
writes. "Gold chains flashed on a regular basis. Boom boxes,
while not uncommon, had the uncommon habit of blasting music loud
enough for everyone to hear. Rumor had it that on one exceptionally
rambunctious flight, a group of hookers worked the coach-class
lavatories. Passengers who wished to use the lavs for conventional
purposes simply had to wait."
"The psychology of flying on an airplane
is such that people are off balance," Hester says from the
comfort of a chaise lounge in his South Beach apartment. "You
have no control. You can't see where you're going. It's an unnatural
event. People become unnerved by that. People act out their fears
in a variety of ways."
Plane Insanity documents the worst of those ways in a tone that's
both honest and intelligent.
"These are 16 years of stories,"
says Hester, 43. "If it all happened in a month, I'd probably
The book also goes a long way toward dispelling the myths of wanton
"stewardesses" that began with Coffee Tea or Me: The
Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses, co-authored by
Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones in 1967.
"I read it again before I wrote the
book," says Hester. "The stereotype of the single, bubble-headed
flight attendant has stayed with travelers for years."
There have been other books written by flight attendants. One
compiled anecdotes and jokes. Another detailed a flight attendant's
experiences pampering such stars as Michael Jackson and Robert
De Niro on MGM Grand Air.
Coming in March is Around the World in a Bad Mood: Confessions
of a Flight Attendant, by Rene Foss, based on her musical revue
of the same name. But the biggest boost for flight attendants
may be Gwyneth Paltrow's starring role in The View From the Top,
due in theaters in April, in which she portrays a rookie airline
attendant from humble beginnings who dreams of seeing the world.
At last, Hester says, flight attendants will have more than one
voice speaking on their behalf.
"Flight attendants have a thankless
job," says Hester. "A lot of people don't realize that
the flight attendant they're turning their nose up at has evacuated
thousands of people in a crash. Every year, we watch a videotape
of the year's tragedies. One minute a flight attendant is being
called a peanut pusher. The next minute, she's rescuing a crying
Hester's career started in his hometown of Chicago. After high
school, he headed to the University of New Mexico where he graduated
with a degree in speech communications. Back in Chicago, he landed
a job as a media buyer at a big advertising agency. "I hated
every aspect of my job," he says.
For the next four years, he worked as a fashion model, doing catalogs
for Sears and JC Penney.
"I didn't have insurance and I needed some stability,"
he says. So Hester remembered what a college counselor had once
said: "What you should do is decide what kind of lifestyle
you want to have first."
Hester knew he loved to travel, and one cold winter in the Windy
City, he started working as a part-time baggage handler. Soon,
he was in flight attendant training.
"They asked me what I was going to
do with my time off and I told them I was going to travel,"
he says. "I'm a travel freak. As a flight attendant, I live
the life of a wealthy man without having any money."
When he lived in New York, he'd often show up at Kennedy Airport
with three days off and no destination in mind. He'd see where
flights were headed and end up someplace like Barbados, where
he'd rent a shack and hang out on the beach.
Writing was always part of his long-term plan, but he didn't get
serious until 1989 when he took a leave of absence to travel around
the world. He spent much of that time in Australia.
While Hester won't reveal which airline he flies for, it's a career
he's happy about.
"Like a lot of my colleagues,"
he writes, "I figured I'd fly a few years, see a bit of the
world, then trade my wings for something better. But flying gets
in your blood. It's like malaria. Once it's in there, it never
really goes away. So, I choose to keep on flying. I deal with
the 14-hour days and polyester pants. I placate the cussing business
fliers, sidestep the puking kids, and duck the fists of air-ragers
who see me as the root of evil. Amid the chaos, I continue to
jet around the planet whenever I have a few days off."