11.22.10

Flight Attendant Freakout

Thanksgiving travelers are in a furor about the TSA’s aggressive new pat-down policy, but those on the receiving end of their ire have it worse. Nicole LaPorte talks to flight attendants about dirty diapers, bulkhead envy, and more. Plus, see The Daily Beast’s ranking of the country’s best and worst airports.

Air rage is reaching a new crescendo with the Transportation Security Administration’s new policy of submitting airline passengers to aggressive pat-downs and privacy-invading scans. It is just the latest frustration to arise in the post-9/11 travel world—in which the battered airline industry has inflicted wave after wave of service cutbacks while charging fees for everything from luggage to peanuts—and, unsurprisingly, John Tyner’s now famous cri de coeur ( “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested”!) touched a nerve.

But as much as passengers have suffered during these times of airborne austerity, it’s those on the receiving end of customer ire who have had it the worst.

Once icons of modernity and glamour—in the 1960s and ’70s, Braniff stewardesses wore Halston- and Pucci-designed uniforms—flight attendants have seen their wages cut by 30 percent since the 9/11 attacks, and their status reduced to thankless laborers who, “at least once a week, are on their hands and knees pulling dirty diapers out of seat-back pockets,” former JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater told The Daily Beast.

Last August, Slater became a symbol of airline workers’ pent-up frustration when, after being treated rudely by a passenger while de-boarding at John F. Kennedy International Airport, he cursed the man out over the public address system, grabbed a beer, and slid down the plane’s emergency chute. It was the kind of ballsy “fuck you” that every put-upon worker dreams of, and Slater instantly became a media sensation and folk hero, a status he is still enjoying.

“It’s so weird, I just went out to get a sandwich, and it’s like, all of a sudden I’m a hometown hero. People are stopping me, high-fiving me, taking my picture,” Slater said by telephone from New York City, where he lives. “It’s still resonating, that whole ‘screw the man’ kind of thing.”

Gallery: Ranking the Biggest American Airports, From First to Worst

Slater’s fame brought him a book deal ( Cabin Pressure) and a slew of other offers he said he couldn’t discuss, so he’s no longer asking for people’s trash or noodging them to return their seat to the upright position. But even without the stardom, Slater says he was ready to move on, given the increasing hardships of being a flight attendant in the modern age.

Howard Kurtz: The Media’s Pat-Down FrenzyYears ago, when Slater flew for Delta, the maximum number of hours a flight attendant could fly per month was 80. Today, carriers like JetBlue have a max of 120 hours. (American and United still have relatively low maxes of 82 and 85 hours, respectively, according to industry data.) At the same time, layovers are much shorter, meaning stewards are getting less time to rest.

“It’s not uncommon to work a 12- to 14-hour day and have an eight-hour layover,” Slater says. “But that doesn’t mean eight hours at your hotel. It’s eight hours from when the door on the plane that’s landed opens to when the door on the next plane that’s leaving closes after boarding. So by the time you get to bed, you get five hours of sleep, and then you get up and do another 13- to 14-hour flying day on a flight that might have three to four legs.”

More fatigued flight attendants paired with more frustrated passengers has created a perfect storm of sorts. When Gailen David, a flight attendant for American Airlines for 23 years, was asked if he’d had any “Steven Slater” moments in recent years, he laughed and said, “There are so many!”

There was the guy in first-class who blew up at him when David told him that he’d run out of eggs. There were the fights that broke out when he had to inform coach passengers that they could not use the first-class bathrooms, even though one of the coach restrooms was out of order. There was the family who was obnoxious from the moment they boarded—from asking another passenger to switch seats, to standing up in the aisle and blocking the food cart, to putting a dirty diaper in the overhead compartment.

All of this has taken a toll on David, who grew up dreaming of working for the airlines. When he was 8 years old, he was calling up and making flight reservations for his family, and he landed his job at American at age 20. Back then, he said, “I never thought I’d be hired by such a successful airline. I felt very fortunate.”

But today, David, who writes the travel blog Jetiquette said, he’s ready to move on to a new career: “It’s over. It hit me all of a sudden that I was in a dead end; that things were not going to get better.”

Extra leg room, or the lack thereof, has been another cause for war in the skies. Passengers now can pay to sit in exit rows or in what’s known as the “bulkhead row,” i.e., the first row in coach, which is more spacious because it’s behind a cabin wall, not a seat. The upgrade comes with other services, such as free drinks, and in some cases, free food.

Flight attendant Bobby Laurie recalls one flight where he had to inform a woman that she would have to be moved from the bulkhead row because a disabled passenger needed the seat.

“She refused to move at all cost,” Laurie said. “She got into an argument with the gate agent over why she had to move, in front of this poor passenger.”

In the end, the woman agreed to the seat change, but “she was not too thrilled,” he said.

Belt-tightening—and tension between passengers and flight attendants—began in the 1990s, but reached a point of no return with the triple whammy of 9/11, rising gas prices, and the recession. Struggling airlines, some of which were forced into bankruptcy, all but eliminated customer service.

Gone were free pillows and blankets (those actually were cut out when the swine flu epidemic hit). Free food? Forget it. Today, only some of the low-fare carriers, such as JetBlue and Southwest, don’t charge for snacks. Some airlines, such as Spirit, even charge for water ($3). And although there is actually more overhead bin space than before, because passengers are being charged to check luggage, they’re bringing more (and bigger) bags onboard.

Making matters worse, air travel overall became a more hassle-ridden experience due to heightened airport security in the post-9/11 world.

“By the time people get to the airport, they are so over the whole thing that it won’t take much to set them off,” Slater said. “They’ve had to pay as much in baggage fees as for the ticket. They’ve had to go through those demoralizing cavity searches. They’ve waited in long lines. So by the time they get to the plane, people are already at wit’s end. And now we have a situation where they tell you, you can’t even have your small carry-on bags because everything’s maxed out in the overhead bin, because [the luggage fees] are causing everyone to bring everything on.

“This is a monster that the airline industry has created.”

With the news of third-quarter profits for many airlines, there is some hope that airline workers will reap some of their company’s rewards. Contract renegotiations with unions are under way that could return pay rates to pre-9/11 levels.

Sara Nelson, a spokeswoman for the United flight attendants, said “the likelihood is very good” of gains for the unions. “Because the workers are mobilized,” she said. “If you look through history, when people are suffering the most, that’s when workers have made the greatest gains. We’re all on the same page. It’s about management not being able to force additional concessions.”

She added that the Continental-United merger may also be a boon, as the financial payoff of the merger will not be possible until contracts are settled.

But Slater is less optimistic.

“Sadly, I don’t see things getting better,” he said. “I see it getting worse. There are a lot of mega-mergers on the horizon, and I think it’s going to result in a lot more jobs lost, and a lot more strife amongst airline personnel.”

“By the time you get to bed, you get five hours of sleep, and then you get up and do another 13- to 14-hour flying day on a flight that might have three to four legs,” said former flight attendant Steven Slater.

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From the airlines’ perspective, one improved quarter does not a total comeback make, particularly in light of rising health insurance and other costs. As American Airlines wrote in a “ Negotiations Update” in 2009: “Health-care costs and inflation continue to rise, compounding the difficult financial state of an already ailing airline industry. American is no less susceptible to these market conditions than any other large carriers. Since 2001, the cost of AA’s health-care coverage has been increased by 78 percent.”

An American spokesperson was not available for comment.

In the meantime, the battle between passengers and flight attendants rages on, though Slater, for one, is far more sympathetic to the plight of travelers now that he’s been removed from the pressure-cooker world of flying. Talking to him today, it’s hard to picture him losing his cool.

“As a 20-year flight attendant,” he laughed, “I don’t begrudge the passengers their anger for one moment!”

Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.