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Coffee, Tea or Me

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

That's what the ads used to say, back in the day when air travel was considered glamorous, stewardesses were required to be young, slim and beautiful, and people actually "dressed" to take a plane. As for me, I thought it was glamorous just to go to the airport, much less get on a plane.

These days, I prefer root canal. Seriously.

Steve Slater was obviously wrong to grab a few beers, open the emergency chute and slide to freedom -- and then to jail -- after he'd had it with a rude passenger on a JetBlue flight. But there's a very good reason why he's become a folk hero of sorts for doing so.

The only place I can think of where people behave more rudely than they do on planes is on the Internet.

Reportedly, a passenger slammed an overhead bin on Slater's head after landing at JFK and then simply ignored his familiar warnings to remain seated until the plane had taxied to the gate.

Traveling is not easy. You're trying to get somewhere -- maybe somewhere important for business, or to see a sick or dying relative, or to get home to your kids -- and the plane is late or overbooked. Your earlier flight was canceled, and you're on standby. Your feet are killing you, and your boss is screaming at you, and the kids want to know why you're not home, and there's a gate change announcement and another line for a flight you probably won't make. And when you finally find yourself on board, you're in the middle seat, there's no room for luggage, there's nothing to eat or drink, and there's a screaming baby -- and, yes, maybe even a surly flight attendant telling you to stow your bag in an overhead that's long since been jammed. Been there. Done that.

Slater couldn't take it anymore. Whether any jury will ever convict him of anything depends on how many frequent travelers are included. My bet is he will walk, if not slide.

In the meantime, we could all use a refresher on airplane etiquette.

In 99 cases out of 100, whatever is wrong is not the fault of the person you're talking to. They have as much control over it as you do. Yelling at them will not change things. If anything, it will put you further down on the list.

Airplanes are not traveling restaurants. They are not traveling living rooms. They are crowded buses that fly. For those of us old enough to remember when airlines sold themselves on their second-floor lounges, gourmet food and extra legroom, it's time to forget all those things. Expect none of the above, and you won't be complaining.

Flight attendants are there for only one reason. Not to stow your luggage. Not to hold your baby. Not to hang your coat or bring you food or make you feel warm and cozy. The reason they lost all the lawsuits aimed at keeping the "coffee, tea or me" girls (their defense was that they made the male passengers feel more comfortable) is because their only real job -- and it's a big one -- is to keep you safe. To take charge in case of emergency. To ensure that your seat belt is fastened when it's supposed to be and you're seated when you're supposed to be so your chances of getting injured, perhaps seriously, are reduced. They are not trying to make you late, uncomfortable or unsatisfied.

Just safe.

For every Steve Slater, there are thousands of other flight attendants who have been treated far worse -- far worse than those of us who just fly on occasion. And they bite their tongues and put up with it and keep doing their best to keep us safe.

I'd like to thank them for it. Fly safe.

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