Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Slater Marks New Era of Flight?

To the list of pop-culture flash-in-the-pans, add the name Steven Slater.

Slater, the now-former flight attendant for Jet Blue airlines who erupted into a criminally-negligent tirade on a Pittsburgh-to-New-York flight earlier this week, has found himself with a gaggle of new Internet friends and a host of charges in court.

A lot of other flight attendants have rallied to Slater's defense, increasingly irate over the treatment they receive from passengers increasingly frustrated by the airline industry's increasingly rigid business models. For most airline employees and passengers these days, air travel has become something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Airline Travel Isn't What It Was

I'm not ancient, but I can barely remember when flying was fun. My parents and people just a little older than me can recall a time when passengers dressed up for air travel; when flying represented glamor and prestige; when flight attendants were called "stewardesses" because almost all of them were female and were paid to pamper their passengers, not play luggage police.

A good friend of mine has been an American Airlines flight attendant longer than Slater has, and virtually every time she talks about her job, she says "Boy, it ain't what it used to be."

She's had a passenger hand her a napkin only to find a dirty diaper inside. An FAA official who just happened to be on the flight and observe the passenger's impudence actually fined the passenger for exposing a flight attendant to potentially hazardous material, since my friend was in the process of serving drinks.

She's had more than a few passengers yell at her because the carry-on bags they packed were too big for the overhead bins. As if that's my friend's fault.

And apparently, a tussle over the overhead bins contributed to the Jet Blue's Slater reaching the end of his rope. A female passenger inadvertently hit Slater in the forehead with her carry-on at the start of the flight in Pittsburgh, and then cursed him as he was trying to get passengers on the just-landed plane to remain seated while they taxied to their gate. Apparently, the same passenger that had gashed Slater's forehead in Pittsburgh had gotten into another tussle with another passenger before deplaning in New York. So Slater wasn't the only person on that flight who was having a bad day.

Landing in New York City

If this flight was similar to the ones I've taken into any of New York City's three airports, the scenario in the plane's cabin after landing is something I've witnessed myself. As soon as the plane's tires touched down onto the runway, the clicking of seatbelts filled the cabin as passengers immediately unlatched them. Yes, all passengers are supposed to remain in their seats with their seatbelts securely fashioned until the "Fasten Seatbelt" sign has been turned off (you can hear the intercom announcement now, can't you?), but when any plane lands in New York City, all bets are off.

This is New York City, passengers are thinking. We're New Yorkers. We've got important places to go and important people to see. Rules apply to dweebs and suburbanites and people from Iowa. I've gotta get off this tin can of a plane and get on with my important life.

Now, I haven't flown into New York City since 9/11, so maybe the rules are better enforced these days. But when I used to fly, this is how it always was. It never failed.

After touchdown, as the plane reached the end of the runway and turned onto the taxiway, somebody would get up and start rummaging around in the overhead bins. Usually, that was still too early for most everyone else, and the false-starter would get a sharp admonishment from a still-seated flight attendant, or the false-starter's embarrassed wife.

But as the terminal came into sight, the cabin would begin to crackle with pent-up expectation, as passengers waited on the edges of their seats (back when we still had legroom in coach), impatiently savoring the first sensations of the plane coming to a stop.

By this time, a flight attendant would be on the intercom, knowing what was about to take place, and nevertheless reminding everybody that we were to wait until the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign had been turned off before getting our stuff from the overhead bins.

But we all knew that didn't make any difference.

As I said, the cue was the initial sensation of inertia - the precise moment in time where you knew the plane had stopped. And suddenly, the cabin would erupt into a mad scramble for the overhead bins.

New Yorkers live their lives by inches. They rush to elevators. They curse out loud when somebody wants to get off at the second floor. They fight over taxi cabs. They body-slam themselves through closing subway doors. If your car is still stationary after a red light turns green, you can expect half a dozen horns to blare at you. Every second gained, every gain notched in competition with somebody else, every rule bent to give you more of something, that is the energy upon which many New Yorkers thrive. Or, at least, claim to thrive.

Meanwhile, the plane may be making a couple of last-minute lurches as the pilots position it for a complete stop. Doesn't matter to the New Yorkers frantically reclaiming their luggage from the overhead bins. They bounce into each other like its a bumpy subway ride. Seasoned flight attendants know resistance is futile at this point, but they drone on anyway over the intercom about the "Fasten Seatbelt" sign.

By the time the cabin door has been opened to the jetway, everybody has been standing in the aisle with their luggage for quite some time.

Golden Era Becoming the Leaden Era?

I wasn't on Slater's flight this week, so I can't say for sure that this scenario I've witnessed many times before actually happened then. Slater himself professes to be a "bag nazi*," meaning he was a stickler for baggage rules. A lot of passengers - who already feel like they're being nickled-and-dimed by airlines - don't like flight attendants who are sticklers for rules. My flight attendant friend who works for American Airlines predicts the pressure they're under to get planes to and from gates, combined with the increasingly miserable flying experience for passengers, will only get worse as the suits in the airlines' corporate suites remain sequestered with their profit/loss reports.

And that's the real problem, isn't it? As a veteran flight attendant, Slater's a product - along with many of his passengers - of the golden era of flight. Most corporate wonks who prowl the paneled halls of airline headquarters never stand in that increasingly minuscule space between the flying public and the front lines of new corporate income policies: flight attendants, gate crews, and pilots.

The skies haven't been friendly for quite a while now. Slater's meltdown may mark the new leaden era of flight.

* I refuse to capitalize this word

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