Longtime Flight Attendant On Stress In The Sky

NPR's Melissa Block talks to Gailen David, a flight attendant and blogger at SkySteward.com, about Monday's incident aboard a JetBlue flight, when a flight attendant lost his temper and cursed a passenger. The situation occurred at a New York airport. The flight attendant bailed down the escape chute.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A cult hero was born yesterday when JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater lost it - lost his temper and presumably his career. There are conflicting accounts about what happened, but according to Slater's lawyer, it started with an abusive passenger who slammed the overhead luggage rack into Slater's head.

When the plane landed in New York, the dispute apparently escalated. Finally, Slater took to the plane's PA system and cursed out the passenger, ending with, by one account: I've had it. Then Steven Slater activated the emergency evacuation chute and slid off the plane but not before grabbing a beer from the beverage cart. He's now facing a variety of criminal charges.

All in a day's work? We're guessing Gailen David has some thoughts on that. He's been a flight attendant with American Airlines for more than 20 years and runs the website DearSkySteward.com. Welcome back to the program, Gailen.

Mr. GAILEN DAVID (Flight Attendant, American Airlines): Thank you.

BLOCK: Have you been there, Gailen, pushed to the brink? Can you imagine ever being in a situation that Steven Slater apparently found himself in?

Mr. DAVID: Absolutely, and I think that's why he's become so popular right now is that so many people can relate to that situation, when you are just pushed, and you don't know if you're going to snap or not, and he obviously did snap.

BLOCK: I've been looking at comments flooding into Facebook, and they're pretty much uniformly supportive of him. One said: You just did what I secretly want to do. Another said: You've earned my respect, my support and my envy for going out in style. What brought you to the boiling point?

Mr. DAVID: Well, I was out for a year a while back because I was insulted so viciously by a husband and wife, it was just more than I could take. I mean, I was told that I was a loser for passing out TV dinners. That's the way they put it. And it was all because I had asked them to keep their children seated.

And I actually, when the plane landed, they even waited outside for me in the gate area to tell me that they were going to have me fired and so forth, and I just decided I couldn't come back. And it even makes me sweat a little to think about it because it just pushes so many buttons, and I definitely can empathize with Steven.

BLOCK: You know, from the passenger side of things, not to justify horrible behavior, but flying is often such a dehumanizing experience, and lines are long, and it's expensive, and you're paying for everything. You can understand how both sides just get to a point where they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore.

Mr. DAVID: What has happened, there have been so many changes in the airline industry. The employees have been put in a warzone. A lot of the decisions that are made in the headquarters office are handed down, and the front-line employees are the ones that end up taking the flak.

BLOCK: Well, do you think there's a danger in sort of lionizing Steven Slater? I mean, does that just feed into a cycle of more and more people behaving badly on airplanes?

Mr. DAVID: I think that people are going to stand behind him and say, you know what, I've even been a passenger on a plane, and I've watched passengers abuse the flight attendants, and I don't know how they do it. I'm glad he did something about it.

Now, as far as them being rude, I think it actually deters that type of behavior. And I hope that more people will talk about that because I experienced something that made me pretty much snap, and I have done my best to promote civilized travel, where people are kind to each other and they really just, you know, watch their P's and Q's when it comes to how they infringe on other people's space on the aircraft and how they interact with the crew.

We all have to think about that and that when you yell at a flight attendant, you are adding stress, and a lot of people need to maybe re-evaluate their behavior on the airplane.

BLOCK: Gailen, you made a video, a very funny video, about your experience and the stresses of flying. It's on your website. But we should also say that you're actually on leave right now because of the stresses of the job, right?

Mr. DAVID: Yes, I am. And, you know, I hope to go back to flying but I definitely have felt a lot of obviously what Steven felt. And I decided I needed to step back from actually being on an aircraft and dealing with all the stresses that come with it, from emergency landings to dealing with irate customers. It really was getting to me.

BLOCK: Gailen David, thanks for talking with us again.

Mr. DAVID: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Gailen David has been a flight attendant with American Airlines for more than 20 years. His website is DearSkySteward.com.

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