08.11.10

Confessions of a Flight Attendant

I work crazy hours, get screamed at by unruly passengers, and have often fantasized about popping that escape slide and gliding to freedom. Will I actually snap one day?

The recent news about Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who cursed out his passengers, grabbed a couple beers, and rode the escape slide to freedom, had me thinking. Have I ever come close to my breaking point on the plane?

I remember working a flight from New York to Los Angeles when a man boarded wearing black sunglasses and a suit coat. He took off his coat, threw it onto my shoulder, and simply said, “Take care of it.” I thought, he can’t be serious. But serious he was. I smiled, folded it up nicely, and placed it in the overhead bin. The man slowly turned around, glaring, and said, “I told you to take care of it.” I smiled again, and responded, “I did.” We didn’t have closets on board that aircraft, and the moment was filled with tension. Later in the flight, this same passenger pushed his entire meal onto the floor of the plane because he “didn’t like the way it looked.”

Later in the flight, this same passenger pushed his entire meal onto the floor of the plane because he “didn’t like the way it looked.”

Still, I kept my cool. I talked it out with the other flight attendants on the flight, took their suggestions for dealing with the problem, and dealt with it. Don’t get me wrong, many times I have thought, How great would it be to pop the slide just to get out of here? But I would never do it.

In November of 2005, I filed an application with a regional airline to become a flight attendant. I did it because I was living in Los Angeles without a job and a friend of mine had described it as “awesome.” I had seen movies like View from the Top, which made the job look glamorous and exclusive, but I was skeptical that it was always that way.

I couldn't have been more right.

Soon after you graduate flight-attendant training, reality hits you. You find out that you’re only paid from the moment the aircraft door closes until the time that it opens again, which means transportation to and from a hotel is considered "rest" or "sleeping." And you discover that, as a new hire, you are an "on-call reserve flight attendant," meaning you can be called up and told to rush to a plane at any time. Even for more senior flight attendants, the schedules can be grueling—even as I write this, at midnight, my 4:45 a.m. wake-up call for my flight to San Francisco is looming.

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When I first started flying I was based in Washington D.C. and I worked on an aircraft that had two flight attendants. The Federal Aviation Administration believes that every 50 seats warrants one flight attendant (personally, I think that ratio needs to be smaller). Having the extra crewmember means having someone to talk to on long flights. It also means you're not the only target for passenger ire in the event that something goes wrong. And trust me, things go wrong.

I remember landing in Key West, Florida from Fort Lauderdale. We were supposed to turn around and go right back to Fort Lauderdale, on to Orlando, then up to Washington D.C. to end our trip. That didn’t happen. Instead, when we landed in Key West we deplaned, cleaned the cabin (that’s right, sometimes we’re the cleaners, too) and started to re-board the aircraft. I was working in the front, and the captain called me into the flight deck. Apparently there was a problem with our brakes and it wasn’t safe for us to fly the aircraft until it was fixed. I got to break the news to the full flight. People began screaming at me instantly. One passenger yelled at me that he had a meeting to get to. I would have liked to snap back, "Would you like to get there alive?" But I just smiled and said sweetly, “I’m so sorry. Hopefully they can fix this fast.”

Why was I having to apologize for an airplane breaking and my pilots deciding not to fly it? Getting yelled at for being the bearer of bad news—or even non-news—is not uncommon. Passengers take the things we tell them personally. Let’s say you’re sitting in your seat sending a text message. The main cabin door has been closed, and the safety demonstration has been completed. By now, you’ve heard at least three times that all electronic devices have to be turned off. So why isn’t yours? The flight attendant comes over and asks you to turn it off, in front of everyone. It’s situations like this, where the passenger feels singled out, that start most of the confrontations on board. But we're just doing our job. Asking people to push bags under their seats, put bags in bins, fasten seatbelts, shut off electronics, bring seats fully upright—we're not picking on you or singling you out. We're working.

I admire Steven for doing what he did. On a daily basis, I experience the frustrations he faced, and I can understand why he may have finally just said, Enough. (Not to mention, he did the two most taboo things in the industry: popping the slide and stealing alcohol.) But when the day is over and I walk off the airplane I can undoubtedly say I’ve handled each situation as it came to the best of my ability, and usually, I look forward to what the next day brings because no two days are ever the same.

Bobby Laurie is a lead flight attendant for a low-cost airline based in California. He resides in Phoenix, Arizona and combines his passions for writing and travel by blogging about his travel experiences and flying the friendly (sometimes!) skies. Bobby writes a flight attendant blog called Up Up & A Gay and serves as co-host of The Crew Lounge podcast.