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The Real JetBlue Heroes

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The JetBlue flight attendant who theatrically quit his job by cursing out a "rude" passenger and exiting via an emergency slide has become a working-class hero to many. But Steven Slater's story didn't hold up for long. It now appears that the gash allegedly caused by someone slamming an overhead bin into his head was there before the flight. Slater was acting like a jerk long before takeoff, according to recent reports.

But had everything Slater said happened really happened, he still would have been no hero of mine. My heroes are the flight attendants who deal with difficult, sometimes dangerous, passengers in a calm, professional manner. They don't get to mug for the cameras, be sung about or juggle television offers.

If Slater wanted to leave his job, that should have been between him and management. His stunt endangered others; an emergency exit slide deploys instantly and with enough force to kill a bystander.

If there was an unruly passenger on board, Slater should not have abandoned his fellow flight attendants. And what about the other passengers, most of whom were behaving perfectly well? Shouldn't they have been treated with respect?

A flight attendant's job includes dealing with nasty, possibly crazy, people. Same goes for waiters, retail workers, police and others who serve the public. But airline workers have the added tension of maintaining safety for themselves and hundreds of innocents. On top of that, they work in a tough environment, where the stress of packed aircraft and broken schedules could send already shaky personalities into meltdown.

Airline crew members voluntarily submit details of "passenger misconduct" to the federal Aviation Safety Reporting System. There are common narratives of passengers turning belligerent when told to stop talking on their cell phones or after being caught smoking in a lavatory. Some passengers become obnoxious drunks, often off their personal liquor supplies.

Then there are the unpleasant finaglers. For example, coach passengers report having been mistreated by the airline and then aggressively demand an upgrade into first class as recompense for their suffering. (One complained that airline personnel wouldn't carry her heavy bag onto the flight.) Passengers may invent the incidents.

And some of the stories are appalling. Prior to takeoff, a man engaged in vulgar, disrupting and threatening behavior in the cabin. When the flight attendants tried to address the matter, his wife and children joined in the swearing. Police removed the whole family from the plane.

An airplane in mid-flight had to make an emergency landing after two passengers in first class started fighting. On another craft, a passenger in first class was found reading a porn magazine and masturbating under his blanket.

In another incident, two passengers were videotaping the cabin during the flight and were asked to stop. One proceeded to smoke in the lavatory and became abusive when he was challenged.

This is relatively minor, but I recall a woman getting up from her seat while my plane was taxiing to the gate. A flight attendant kept asking her to sit down, and she repeatedly disobeyed. Her blank expression reflected some kind of mental illness. When we got to the gate, the passengers had to wait for the authorities to come on the plane and take her away.

Steven Slater -- even if he had been telling the truth -- was just an angry person acting out. I've been on monumentally late and crowded flights where the flight crew did its best for the passengers, and the passengers suppressed their discomfort to applaud its efforts. We figured we were all in this together. This is the kind of spirit that deserves a toast.
  
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