Sunday, August 15, 2010

Stewardess or Flight Attendant...rude is the same...

In view of the “hero of the week” Steven Slater, I thought I’d reminisce about life as a flight attendant…it seems that one thing is constant from “my day” when we were still called stewardesses, to today…rude people are universal. (You’ll notice I didn’t excuse the occasional rude flight attendant…the jury will decide whether Mr. Slater is a hero or a villain.) I am referring to the absence of courtesy. It has no gender bias; or race bias; or age bias; or nationality bias…you’ll find rudeness in the grocery store; in the line at your bank; at the DMV (definitely at the DMV…at both sides of the counter)…needless-to-say, rude is not discriminated against.

In the late 60’s when I was a stewardess with Delta, the book “Coffee, Tea, or Me” was published. The “hero” of the story was a bachelor (played by Tony Curtis in the movie) whose apartment had a revolving door through which numerous stewardesses entered and exited. It painted all stewardesses as lacking morals and just slightly better than prostitutes (they didn’t get paid). On one of my flights a little old lady was reading the book and as I walked past her, she looked up at me, shook her grey curls and said, “Tsk, tsk, tsk…shame on you!” (I didn’t give her the satisfaction of a reply.) In the clip art shown here, they refer to "the Girdled Stewardess"...among the indignities of the job was a "girdle check"...your supervisor could board a flight unannounced and ask to check and see if you were wearing a girdle...God-forbid you should "jiggle" down the aisle! (I'm serious!)

The traveling public many times places flight attendants into a category of glorified waitress. It never occurs to them that if they: a) have a medical emergency; or b) the airplane has a mechanical emergency, or c) God-forbid someone has an agenda that doesn’t include the airplane arriving at its destination, the flight attendant is their “first responder”. They are trained in first aid, CPR, over-water ditching, emergency landings, how to recognize and defuse potentially dangerous passengers, what to do if the plane loses pressurization, and even how to deliver a baby and place it on the mother’s tummy until they can be transported to a hospital. Doesn’t sound like a “waitress”, does it?

In my five years with Delta, I had some experiences that called on extraordinary patience and constraint. I may not have succeeded 100%, but in most cases I was proud of myself. Whenever a passenger was incredibly rude or demanding, another passenger (or two, or more) would hand me a business card and offer to write a letter if I need corroboration. I experienced a man pulling my oxygen mask off my face as he exited the restroom when the masks fell after a rapid descent. (I let him have my jump-seat and got the portable tank from the overhead rack…when people panic, they often betray the image they extend to the world.)

Then there was the famous TV cowboy who was traveling with three of his buddies to go hunting. His equally famous wife wasn’t with him…I’ll let you figure out who it was. After about six drinks, one of his traveling companions thought that “Coffee, Tea, or Me” was true and pinned me to the wall in the galley. I rang the cockpit button and the co-pilot came out and informed him, quite forcefully, that he could be arrested for what he had done. Then he suggested he sit down and stay in his seat for the rest of the flight. In their hearing the Captain told me not to serve them any more drinks…in those days there was no limit on drinks in first class.

On a charter flight to Las Vegas out of Baltimore, everyone on board had been celebrating the Orioles having won the World Series that afternoon. They boarded already drunk and put their pennants in the overhead rack along with their bags…there were no doors on the overhead racks then so every one of those sticks with flags on them was a potential “missile” if we hit turbulence. Before we ever taxied out, several men had raided the liquor cabinet and one had so many bottles in his pants I thought he’d be “mooning” everyone before he got to his seat. We had no liquor left before we took off so when people wanted a drink, I directed them to his seat. Part way through that flight, one joker had a “play” doctor kit he and he took out the “fake” hypodermic and shoved it into my arm pretending to give me a shot. Only problem was, the toy didn’t retract the way it should have and it broke through the skin on my arm. I was never so happy to see passengers depart. To add insult to injury, at that time if you worked a Las Vegas charter (paid for by the Flamingo or the Thunderbird hotels), the passengers were usually so grateful they would pass the hat and the girls would share a nice tip. This particular group didn’t do that….aarrrgh! To this day I get a negative feeling when I see that Oriol logo.

Then there are the mothers who would board with their little darlings, open a book, and turn over all parenting duties to the stewardess. It was as though they started their vacation the moment the wheels left the runway and any child care became our duty. I had one little Dennis the Menace who thought it was fun to see the lady come running down the aisle whenever he pushed the little button that rang a bell and turned on a light above his seat. I asked him to not push the button unless it was an emergency. When he did it again, I interrupted his book-reading parent and asked her to insure that he not ring the bell again. When he did it again…and again…and again…I didn’t speak to either one of them, I just pushed the button back in and raced back to the galley! When he did it for the 13th time on that meal service leg from Atlanta to Dallas with 99 passengers in the coach cabin and 1 hour serving time, I said, “Little boy, I have activated your seat and if you push that button again, you’ll slide down into the baggage compartment and it is REALLY, REALLY dark down there.” Mother came to life and spluttered a few things that I barely heard as I rushed to pick up meal trays before we landed. He didn’t push the button again and there’s probably a 50-year-old man out there who doesn’t ring call buttons (at least I hope so).

Some of the unusual things I was called upon to do weren’t rude, but they also weren’t covered in our training. One of the strangest experiences I ever had happened in San Diego. It was a flight that landed in Los Angeles and then in Dallas before continuing to Atlanta. A Navy Chief boarded and he asked if he could use the restroom while on the ground. He said he’d just been separated from the service and had partied a little too much. (He looked a little “green”.) I said he could and continued boarding the flight. When we did a seat check to get ready to taxi, I realized he hadn’t left the lavatory. I knocked on the door and I heard a muffled voice from inside. After a minute, the Chief stood there with a paper towel over his mouth. I asked if he was okay. He said, “Do you know how to get something out of the john?” Puzzled, I said, “What exactly do you want to get out?” He moved the paper towel away from his mouth and said, “My teeth.” He had been sick and lost his false teeth in the toilet. (Yuk!) I told him to have a seat; I locked the bathroom door from the outside so no one else could use it…he was the only one who had been there and the airplane had been serviced overnight. That was the good news; the bad news was that he was changing planes in Los Angeles and the airplane didn’t get serviced there. The teeth would be going with us to Dallas before they could be “retrieved”. Believe-it-or-not, he filled out his name and address and in Dallas they got the teeth, put them in an envelope and mailed them to him!

Those reminiscences may be humorous, but the experiences of flight attendants on duty on September 11, 2001 can’t be compared to anything we “stewardesses” experienced. Have you ever focused on the events of September 11, 2001 and asked yourself, “Who was the first victim of the deranged perpetrators of the most horrific tragedy in our lifetime?” If you asked that question, you would have to have answered: “A flight attendant.” It was a flight attendant who tried to keep the Muslim extremists from entering the cockpit on the first airplane. A terrorist cut her throat with a box cutter.

Flight attendants today are a “sounding board” for complaints by any passenger who is frustrated over long lines, fewer “perks”, higher fares, added fees, and post-9/11 restrictions. Most flight attendants listen and sympathize even though they, personally, had no say in the imposition of the rules and would gladly be serving meals for everyone at no charge just like “the good old days”.

So, my rule for this post is: The next time you fly, remember 9/11 and think of your flight attendants as your “first responders” and thank them when you leave the plane. (One of them might be our daughter.)

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