Fasten your seat belts, flight attendant-turned-novelist shares stories from the sky
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Most of us take commercial plane flights from time to time, and we've come to accept the annoyances of air travel - tight seats, flight delays, turbulence. Our guest, writer T.J. Newman, has written a thriller about a flight from Los Angeles to JFK Airport, where the problems are far more serious. The pilot learns shortly after taking off that a terrorist has taken his wife and children captive in their home, and the pilot has a choice. He must crash the airplane when instructed, or his family will die. The pilot enlists the help of a veteran flight attendant to try and foil the plot, and the action is tense and fast-moving.
It's the first novel by Newman, who spent 10 years as a flight attendant, at times working on the story in quiet moments on red-eye flights. She studied musical theater at Illinois Wesleyan University and pursued that as a career in New York before taking to the skies. Universal has already purchased the film rights to her book, called "Falling," which is now out in paperback. I spoke with T.J. Newman last year, when the pandemic had make the flight of job attendants even more difficult, and the federal transportation mask mandate was still in place.
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DAVIES: T.J. Newman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
TJ NEWMAN: Thank you so much. It's wonderful to speak with you.
DAVIES: So did the idea for this story have a - I don't know, a starting point in your experience as an attendant?
NEWMAN: It did, and the starting point fittingly came to me when I was at work, working a flight. It was a red-eye. It was from Los Angeles to New York, the flight that is also the flight in the story. And I'm standing at the front of the cabin, and I'm looking out at the passengers who are all asleep. Like I said, it's a red-eye - cabin's dark, it's cold, it's quiet. And I have this thought that their lives, my life, my crewmates' lives were all in the hands of the pilots. And it was the first time that I thought, with that much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make a commercial pilot? And I just - I couldn't shake the thought.
And several days later, I was working a different trip with a different set of pilots, and one day, I just threw out to the captain that I was with, hey, what would you do if your family was kidnapped, and you were told that if you didn't crash the plane, they would be killed? What would you do? And the look on his face terrified me because I knew he didn't have an answer. And I knew I had the makings of my first book.
DAVIES: You open the book with this pilot, whose name is Bill Hoffman, having a nightmare about an airborne emergency where there's an explosion on the plane, and he's in the back, and, you know, he knows it's his job to get up there and get the plane under control and guide it to safety, and it's - he wakes up, and things are going very, very badly. Do you know if pilots have these nightmares, or did you?
NEWMAN: They do. That's actually a very common thing. Pilots have reoccurring nightmares. And I actually asked a lot of pilots what kind of nightmares they have, and it was really incredible to see sort of the common threads that went through these dreams and sort of the themes that went through these dreams also. And one of the themes that really seemed to stand out was that lack of control, that inability to do what they needed to do to handle a situation. And so that kind of shaped that opening sequence and what Bill's, you know, biggest fears were.
DAVIES: Did you have nightmares yourself?
NEWMAN: I did, but most of them were more - flight attendants also have this running joke that we'll be dead asleep and all of a sudden wake up and go, oh, darn it, I forgot to bring that ginger ale to that guy in seven echo. Like, it happens all the time (laughter).
DAVIES: So this story begins with the pilot. Actually, he gets, I guess, his phone. He sees his family being held captive by this Kurdish nationalist who says you're either going to crash the plane or I'm going to kill your family. But the plot really takes off from there, and there are things that happen in the cockpit and things that happen in the cabin that involve the crew and then things that happen on the ground involving FBI agents, and it gets pretty intense.
There's a moment where the experienced flight attendant among the three, who somehow I picture being your voice - maybe it is, maybe it isn't - tells the rookie, who's thinking, oh, gosh, this is terrible. What are we going to do? I'll just serve the drinks while you guys do the serious work. And then the experienced one says, no, no, no, serving drinks is not our job. This is a real credo of yours, isn't it?
NEWMAN: It is, and it's - there's a misconception that flight attendants are onboard for service, that we're there just to bring you food and drink. And that's just not true. Flight attendants are onboard for safety and security and to be medical first responders, period. Service is just something that we provide. And it's been really, really nice to hear so many people say, I guess I never made that connection.
And I always tell them, I'm like, yeah, if flight attendants were on board a plane just to bring you a drink, I promise you they would have replaced us with vending machines a really long time ago. And if you're having a heart attack, I'm not going to bring you a Diet Coke. I'm going to bring the defibrillator, and I'm going to shock your heart. And that's really kind of an angle of flight attending that is just not portrayed most of the time, and I'm very proud of the way that flight attendants are portrayed in this book. And it's very satisfying to hear that the response to it is very positive.
DAVIES: Well, listen, I have to say for those of us who take flights which are routine and uneventful, what we see you doing is in fact serving us, you know, which has never struck me as terribly easy, actually, going up and down these aisles while the plane is bumping and yawing and trying to do the job. What kinds of dangerous situations are you trained for, and how do you practice them?
NEWMAN: If all you see us do is a beverage service, that's a great day at work 'cause that means that we're not actually doing our job because we have training in everything from hazmat to hijackings to medical situations to turbulence to mechanical issues. I mean, we go through an extensive training program. And then every year, we go through a recurrent training program that has multiple days and has online components as well. We have a manual that's, you know, 800 pages long, and we just know it backwards.
Self-defense - we have a big unit in self-defense that we're trained with, and then there's also supplementary self-defense training that the TSA and the FAA provides if flight attendants want to attend that. Service is something that is barely even touched on in initial training. It's just not what we do. That's not what we're there for. But like I said, if that's all you see us doing, that's a great day. That means I'm not actually doing my job. I'm just delightfully providing service.
DAVIES: So can you share with us the most - the scariest thing that's happened to you in flight?
NEWMAN: One of the scariest things was I had a passenger have a complete psychotic break. And it wasn't enough of a medical emergency or physical threat that we diverted, but what it meant was that we had to handle this passenger who at any moment could turn violent, could turn who knows what at a - you know, in a pressurized tube with hundreds of people, going, you know, hundreds of miles an hour. And I think that it was that sustained tension for hours while we just tried to manage this situation that is - that's just one story of so many that are like that. I mean, the margin of error when you're on a plane and you're on a flight is so small. And even something as small as a - you know, someone having a psychotic break - what could be considered small if it goes well. But if it doesn't go well, we're really in a world of hurt.
DAVIES: So what was this passenger saying or doing?
NEWMAN: Nonsense, to tell you the truth. There was - she was throwing light things around the cabin. If it escalated to more aggressive violence, then we would have diverted. Just interacting with strangers, making everyone around her uncomfortable. She was - we're not sure, physically, if she was OK. If she was going to - there were some physical symptoms that we saw. And, you know, so many incidents that happened like that, too, are - it's like a whodunit case, too. You're trying to figure out, what has this person eaten? Have they - you know, are they traveling with anybody on board? Have they consumed alcohol? Have they consumed drugs? What medication are they on? And so you're trying to cobble all of this together for someone who is most likely, and especially in this case, was not being honest with us while also trying to, you know, maintain safety and control of the cabin while also trying to serve drinks and food as well. It's a real balancing act.
DAVIES: You know, and I would imagine that in a circumstance like that, in addition to assessing the condition and potential threat of this person, you get all the people around them - you know, many of whom may be a little uneasy about flying anyway - you've got to have - find some way to reassure them, I assume...
DAVIES: ...With an expression, a gesture.
NEWMAN: Exactly. And not only that, we're also trained to think, OK, this is a big scene that's happening right now. I'm giving this all of my attention. But I'm also keeping one eye on the rest of the cabin because what if this is a diversion? What if this is trying to take our attention away while something else is happening on the aircraft that is actually the nefarious action? Part of our training is mentally getting us into a space where we're always just aware of our surroundings. We're constantly aware of the passengers and the plane and everything around us because, like I said, the margin of error is very small. And if something goes sideways, we need to be prepared to react quickly.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We're speaking with T.J. Newman. Her first novel is called "Falling." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is writer T.J. Newman. Her first novel is a new thriller about a cross-country commercial flight in which the pilot is told by a terrorist he'll have to crash his airplane or his wife and children will be murdered. T.J. Newman spent 10 years as a flight attendant herself. The book is called "Falling."
There is a moment as this crisis in the story intensifies and the crew - I mean, the - including - the flight attendants are preparing for disaster. The lead flight attendant, whose name is Jo - she is admiring the way that they had come together, the passengers in the cabin. She said, the souls on board had become a family, and the short life of this family was about to end. And as a group, they faced their mortality together. Jo was so proud to be with these people, proud to have added her voice to theirs. This is an interesting moment where the flight attendant is really having some kind of very meaningful connection with this random group of people. Did you ever feel that?
NEWMAN: I felt that all the time. That's what it is, you know? It's - you're in an enclosed environment with a select group of people. And for the period of that flight, whether it's a quick 45-minute flight or a six-hour, you know, cross-country transcon, it's you guys. And you're all in this together. And especially when you face any sort of situation, it just becomes poignant that you're a little collective group. And I can wax romantic about aviation all day long, but Jo's outlook that she puts there - I mean, I wrote that because that's how I look at the plane. That's how I look at a group of passengers. We are a family. And it's a limited time, but for that limited time, it's us.
DAVIES: You know the inside of an airplane cabin. You've spent, you know, countless hours there. There are parts of the story that involve other things, like FBI agents. Did you do a lot of field research?
NEWMAN: I did a lot of research as best I could. Yeah, like you said, I know an inside of a cabin backwards. FBI - I've never been inside an agency. But - so I had to do some research. And, yeah, that required a little bit more research on my part. Same thing with the cockpit. Like, you know, I had to consult with a lot of pilots and ask a lot of questions because I'm on the other side of the door. So there's only so much that I do know and understand. I had to get help from pilots to make sure I was getting the lingo right and the terminology right and the way that they would handle things correctly. So, yeah, I did do a lot of research.
DAVIES: How receptive were pilots to talking to you in detail about the book?
NEWMAN: I think a more difficult task is getting a pilot to stop talking about flying.
NEWMAN: That's just - that's all they want to do. So it was very, very easy to get a pilot to talk about flying with me.
DAVIES: You know, your getting this book contract as a first novel, you know, based on your experiences as a flight attendant, has gotten a fair amount of attention in - you know, in the publishing press. And I have to say, this reminded me of when Scott Turow wrote his novel, "Presumed Innocent." It's been - gosh - more than 20 years now. But, I mean, he was a lawyer. And he wrote this book, which had this sort of - really kind of grabbed the feel of the sort of randomness and disorganization of the criminal justice system. And I remember him saying in an interview that lawyers around him were saying, gosh, I should have thought of that. Yeah, I should write a book about this stuff. And he was saying, well, yeah. It's not quite that simple. And he'd actually spent years, you know, studying creative writing. And it's not just, like, getting your experiences down on a page. And I assume it was not quite so easy for you. How did you learn how to write a novel?
NEWMAN: It definitely was not easy. And it took a lot of work - I mean a lot of work. I convinced myself to start with very small goals. And the first goal was just finish the story. And like I said, I didn't tell anybody that I was doing this. And part of the reason I didn't tell anybody I was doing this was because I had already put myself out there by moving to New York after I graduated from college with a degree in musical theater and pursuing my dreams on Broadway, and in front of all my friends and family and the whole world - failed miserably. And I had moved home to Phoenix, moved back in with my parents. And I was embarrassed.
And by the time I licked my wounds enough and sort of had gotten up enough courage to be able to do something creative again, it was writing. And so I would start to write stories. And I would abandon them, if I'm being honest, because I - my confidence was shaken. I didn't have any confidence in anything that I was putting out artistically. But when I had the idea for this book, it was the first time that, like I was just saying, my need to know what happened to these characters was stronger than my fear of failure and my feelings of inadequacy.
DAVIES: I've read that you wrote this book, in part, pieces at a time while you were on red eye flights. Tell us how that worked.
NEWMAN: I did, yeah. Red eyes - I'm a - I'm naturally a night owl. So red eyes are my favorite flights to work. And, you know, once the plane got airborne and we did initial service and got everybody kind of tucked into bed, basically, the plane got quiet. And I had the forward galley to myself because I worked in first class most of the time. And so I would write. And I would write longhand on the back of the manifest or the back of a catering bill or whatever I had there. And a passenger would come around the corner and ask for something, you know. And I just sort of flipped the paper over and tuck it - (laughter) tuck it away. And then when - once they were taken care of, I'd pull it back out and keep going.
DAVIES: It's interesting that your mom and sister were both flight attendants. Did they spend a long time at it?
NEWMAN: Yeah. We call it the family business. And, yeah, my mom did it her whole adult life, basically. And my sister did - flew for - I want to say she was at 15 years, I think. And I flew for 10.
DAVIES: So was your mom flying while you were growing up? Was it weird to have her gone so much?
NEWMAN: She was. But to me, that was normal. So it didn't seem weird to me. I know aviation is a strange industry for people outside of it. It's like, what do you mean she's just gone? But that's how we grew up. That seems normal to us. So it didn't seem weird to us.
DAVIES: There's a way in which it looks - sounds really glamorous. I mean, you're always going to one place or another. And you're staying at, presumably, nice hotels. On the other hand, you know, it could be a drag to just be going from hotel to airport in these short turnarounds and never in your own bed. Is it both? Would you recommend it?
NEWMAN: (Laughter) It's definitely both. It seems far more glamorous than it is, (laughter) absolutely is - seems far more glamorous than it is. But I absolutely would recommend it. It's a phenomenal job where you get to visit great places that you probably wouldn't, you know, otherwise and stay in nice hotels and fly with the best crews. That's the main thing is the crews that you fly with and the passengers that you get to meet. That being said, have I spent many days on my hands and knees, you know, scraping up a complete stranger's vomit? Yeah. Yeah. I definitely have. It's not pretty a lot of the time.
DAVIES: Yeah. I was going to ask what the physical demands are. What - you know, you're on your feet a lot. I mean, you know, you're on your feet on ground that is unsteady, right? I mean, even if there's not a lot of turbulence, it's not - the, you know, airplane is not rock-steady. Does that take a toll on you?
NEWMAN: Oh, absolutely. It's - there's a huge physical toll. That beverage cart weighs, like, 400, 500 pounds. And you're pushing it uphill because the flight - the plane is not level. So you're pushing it uphill, also at altitude. A plane is only pressurized to 7,000 or 8,000 feet. So you're always - your lungs are always working a little bit harder as well. Add to that jet lag and irregular sleeping patterns and airplane food and airport food and it's - it can definitely take a toll on your body.
DAVIES: T.J. Newman's book, "Falling," is out in paperback. She'll be back to talk more after this short break. And Justin Chang will review the new Baz Luhrmann movie, "Elvis." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with writer T.J. Newman. Her new thriller is about a cross-country commercial airplane flight in which the pilot is told by a terrorist he must crash the plane when instructed or his wife and children will be murdered. It's T.J. Newman's first novel. She spent 10 years as a flight attendant on two commercial airlines. Her book, titled "Falling," is now out in paperback.
I wondered if you have any strategies or techniques for, as the passengers are loading, identifying the ones who are going to be a problem. I don't mean a serious problem necessarily, but a pain in the butt.
NEWMAN: Absolutely. We're - every boarding process, all eyes are on the passengers as they board, both to look for, as you're saying, you know, your hot spots, your potential issues, and also to look for your ABPs, your able-bodied persons, which are people that we will keep in mind if we need to go to seek volunteers in the event that we have some sort of situation and we need strong, able bodies to assist us. That's how we're trained to think. We're constantly looking for those things. And especially during boarding, that's pivotal because so much of being a flight attendant is about de-escalation. But beyond de-escalation, it's about spotting a problem before it's a problem so that we can take care of it before it escalates to a point that is out of our control. And if we can handle a situation like that while we're still on the ground and the door is open, that's a far preferred situation.
DAVIES: Can you think of a case where you did that, spotted a problem before it really blossomed?
NEWMAN: I mean, the most common one is boarding passengers who appear to be intoxicated. And before you even get onboard the flight, I can smell alcohol on you and you're not walking straight and you're slurring your speech, we're really going to have a problem once we're at altitude and you have another drink, and now we're in an enclosed environment. So in situations like that, it's always better to have a gate agent come onboard and try to handle the situation or remove the passenger. And that happens very frequently.
DAVIES: So how does that work? I mean, do you say, hey, step aside here, sir, I want to have somebody talk to you? Or - you do it before he gets...
NEWMAN: Pretty much. I mean...
DAVIES: ...Before he gets to the seat.
NEWMAN: Yeah, yeah. Every situation is a little bit different. And we also practice what's called CRM, crew resource management, which basically boils down to the concept of communication. So if I see someone that comes on that I - I don't know - I'm seeing yellow flags, I'm not sure about this, then I might call the back and say, hey, you know, the guy in this row, he's wearing this - go, like, check him out, see what you think. I'm getting a vibe; tell me what you think about it. And then I can ask a gate agent and say, like, hey, did you have anything weird happen in the gate, you know, with this passenger? Maybe my one little yellow flag that I'm seeing is nothing on its own. But if you put it together with other perspectives and other yellow flags, well, now we've got probably a problem. We probably just got a situation that's going to eventually turn into something, so we're better off trying to handle this before it actually becomes a situation.
DAVIES: So what does it sound like when you approach this person? What do you say?
NEWMAN: You know what's funny is if the door is open and the gate agents can still come on, we try to let them handle it because, frankly, we're the people - the flight attendants are going to continue on with these passengers and potentially this passenger who is in front of us. So if they can handle the situation to include take the brunt of some of the aggression and tension, they shoulder it because they're going to walk off the plane and walk away. We - the flight attendants - that door is going to shut, and now we're all going to be together for the next, you know, six hours. So if they can handle it themselves, we usually let them take care of it. And that can go anywhere from a polite conversation up to calling law enforcement. It really just kind of depends on the situation and how the person in question reacts.
DAVIES: You know, I had a member of my family who had a real issue with flying - you know, fear of flying. And I'm wondering if you have techniques for noticing that and reassuring people. I mean people who manage to get on the plane but who are uncomfortable.
NEWMAN: I do. A lot of times, what helps people is to speak to the pilots. Just putting eyes on who is flying the plane calms people, 'cause really, people say they're afraid of flying, but what they're really afraid of is the lack of control - right? - 'cause once you enter a plane and sit down and that door shuts and the plane is moving, you've essentially just ceded control over everything.
DAVIES: I had another friend who said she really dislikes turbulence when it occurs. And when it happens, one of the things she'll do is look at the expressions on the flight attendants' faces to judge, should we be worried? Do you have a turbulence look?
NEWMAN: Absolutely, and it is a pasted-on smile of nothing to see here, folks. Yeah, it's so funny to me because people seem to lose sight of the fact that we are, you know, in a metal tube miles up in the air traveling hundreds of miles an hour. Like, it's a pretty incredible set of circumstances, but people forget it because we've gotten so used to it. But the second that plane goes bump, the second that there's turbulence, all eyes are on the flight attendants. Is this normal? Is this OK? Are we going to be OK? Like, you can read it on their faces. And it's our duty - and you see it in "Falling."
You see the flight attendants put on that face and - because that is our duty to calm and reassure and let people know, this is fine, this is fine, we're going to be fine, even if in the back of your mind you're going, this is a lot - there is a lot going on. Like, in the book, you know, they - they're facing a pretty extreme circumstances, but that's not what they present to the passenger. When they walk around the galley curtain and they're in the privacy of the galley, they're going to be a little bit more, you know, casual and off the cuff. But with the public, it is, we're fine, we're under control.
DAVIES: There was a story in BuzzFeed that had a bunch of - what would you call them? - revelations, comments by people who are flight attendants kind of telling you what really goes on. Some of them are pretty interesting. One of them was, you know, during delays at the gate, we're not getting paid. We're as ticked off as you are, if not more. True?
NEWMAN: Fact. Flight attendants are paid hourly, and we are only paid when the door is shut and the aircraft is moving.
NEWMAN: Yeah. So boarding and deplaning, all of that - we are not getting paid.
DAVIES: Another one - this is trivial, but it might not be trivial to you. When you're getting your trash together, don't stick your napkin in your cup. We have limited trash rooms, so we stack the cups. Whenever you do that and I have to fish out the napkin, I die a little inside.
NEWMAN: I love that. And that's such a flight attendant thing to say. And she's absolutely right. Like, flight attendant - every flight attendant has their personal way that they prefer to do trash collection, and that's hers. It's so funny to see what the little quirks are that each flight attendant have. Like, my hot-button issue, like hers is with the napkin and the cup - mine is when people ask for an entire can. Like, you know, they'll say, oh, I'll take a Coke, but could I get the can? Because in my mind, I'm always like, do you think I'm catered to give every single person on this flight a full can? And the guy next to you also just asked for a Coke, so - what? - now I've got to hand him just a paltry cup, and you get the entire can? It's - that's my hot-button issue like her napkin in the cup, which may not seem interesting to the general public, but that's what flight attendants sort of shake their fists at.
DAVIES: Right. So you're thinking, are you kidding? And what you're saying is, of course, sir.
NEWMAN: (Laughter) Exactly. That's where that face comes out again of, like, of course. It'd be my pleasure.
DAVIES: Another one said, when you ask us to change the temperature, we might pretend to do it, but we generally are going to keep it colder because if you hit turbulence, warm temperatures increases the chance of someone throwing up. Is that true?
NEWMAN: Also fact, yup.
NEWMAN: Absolutely, yup. That's why red-eyes are so cold, also, 'cause - and all flights are usually kept on the cold side if we can control it because, yes, it's - it avoids nausea. And also depending on the aircraft, we truly may not have control over the temperature.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We are speaking with T.J. Newman. Her book is "Falling." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with T.J. Newman. Her book, "Falling," is now out in paperback. When we recorded the interview in July of last year, the federal transportation mask mandate was still in effect.
You know, you worked for 10 years, and that included the period before the #MeToo movement, and then the #MeToo movement, you know, arose. And I wonder if - I don't know. Did you experience a difference in the way you were treated by men in the industry, and I'm including pilots?
NEWMAN: Aviation is a very antiquated industry in a way, very backwards. There was a lot of catching up that needed to happen in aviation. So when the #MeToo movement hit, it definitely did, if nothing else at the beginning, change the conversation and bring awareness. And I think slowly but surely, it did change behavior, both from crewmates and the relationships therein and also from the passengers. I think any woman will attest that while much progress has been made, there is still quite a bit of progress that needs to be made. But I do feel it's moving in the right direction.
DAVIES: I don't want you to share anything that you don't feel comfortable sharing, but I'm just wondering what your experiences were like where - do pilots hit on flight attendants?
NEWMAN: I mean, it's a weird industry also in that the lines between co-worker and friend and family and home and away and everything get very blurry because we don't just leave the office and go home to our families every night. We go to the hotel, and we go to the hotel together. So, you know, with anything - and oftentimes, you're flying with people that you've never met. These are brand-new people, so you don't know how you would, you know, hang out with these friends and relate to these friends. So there's always kind of that juggling a little bit of figuring out how these relationships work.
But I'm the type of person who if I'm ever in a situation and things are moving in a direction I'm not comfortable with, I'm going to speak up, and I'm going to say something. And I'm happy to say that I think that vibe also came off, so I didn't have too many situations where it felt uncomfortable. But, you know, especially if you're looking from passengers, have I been cornered in my galley? Yes. Have I had, you know, unsolicited advances? Yes, absolutely. It's a unfortunate reality of the job and something that, again, in this book and the way that I've portrayed these characters, I hope, you know, brings attention to and moves away from the way that flight attendants are often viewed in the media and have been portrayed in stories.
DAVIES: You flew for years before the pandemic, and I guess - did you fly at all during the pandemic?
NEWMAN: Yeah, I flew in the very beginning before I stepped back and, like many in the airline industry, took a furlough. But a lot of my friends stayed flying the whole time, so I heard their stories constantly, so I felt like I was flying the whole time.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, how would you feel about being in a cabin with people when there's all this virus around and, you know, the air is recirculated, presumably filtered? But I don't know. Would you feel comfortable staying with it?
NEWMAN: You know, it was - I mean, we all lived through that time, and it was confusing and scary, and that was no exception on the plane. We didn't - you know, none of us knew what was safe and what wasn't safe. And flight attendants, I think, got put in a weird position, if I'm honest, because flight attendants were essential workers. They, you know, went to work every day, but they weren't doctors and nurses, and the things that they do were the very things that we were telling everybody not to do.
So I think there was a - I think flight attendants really kind of had to wrestle with that, of, like, wait a second; I'm essential, and I know I'm doing something important, but also, am I contributing to the problem by traveling? But I still have to go into work. It was a very weird position to be in. And then you combine that with having to play mask police and deal with enforcing, you know, mask regulations onboard and the pushback that they received from that. And it was a really rough year for flight attendants.
DAVIES: Yeah. I was going to ask, what are the techniques when someone is, you know, is resistant to putting on a mask? I mean, because it's the same thing that happens in department stores. But again, you're in that confined, little space.
NEWMAN: Exactly. And I think, you know, we've seen so many videos and we've seen so many situations, and most of them - a lot of them are on the ground. And that goes back to what I was saying was we try to handle a situation before we're - we've close that door and we're moving 'cause if we can - if we can remove the problem before it's a problem, that's even better. I think - it was frustrating 'cause - flight attendants, you know, our tools are always limited. But in this scenario, too, really, there wasn't much to say besides this is the rule; this is the regulation. If you want to, you know, be on this aircraft, you have to do this. And it seems like a simple ask, but it wasn't.
DAVIES: Right. And if you're on the ground, you can say you have a choice - you can leave, or you can comply.
DAVIES: If you're in the middle of a flight, it's a lot harder.
DAVIES: There are a lot more reports of air rage. I mean, there have been videos of fistfights. And you know, when I see that, I think two things. Well, one, everybody carries a video camera now that they have cellphones that are with them, and they get a lot of media attention. Is it your sense that it is truly more - that flight attendants are experiencing this a lot more and are concerned about it?
NEWMAN: It's not just my, you know, guess. It's a quantifiable fact. The FAA documented more than 3,000 reports of unruly passengers just since the first of the year. That's not even counting 2020. And 2,300 of those were mask-related. So you know, we've all seen the videos. And I, like everyone, have just been horrified by what we've seen.
I have to say, I've been very encouraged by what I've seen from the airlines in that they are actually issuing repercussions. I mean, there was a video that went viral just a couple weeks ago of a Southwest flight attendant who was punched in the face, who, you know, had two of her teeth knocked out. And she was bleeding in this incident with a passenger. But that passenger was charged with felony battery, and she has been barred for life from flying on Southwest Airlines. And those kinds of repercussions must be in place because they just have to be in place.
And I think, also, airlines took the step of discontinuing alcohol sales during the pandemic. And I believe most of them have not resumed alcohol service, which I think is fantastic because, frankly, it just - I mean, it adds fuel to a fire. And it's just - already, everybody is in a heightened state, and our patience is short. And tensions are high, and we don't need to add alcohol to it. And so I have been encouraged by some of the steps and support that I've seen from the airlines.
DAVIES: Yeah, did you - when you were flying before the pandemic, did you kind of regret having to serve alcohol to people just knowing that it's going to loosen inhibitions, particularly over a long flight where people might drink a lot?
NEWMAN: I think you also get - the more you fly, you get better at gauging what a person's response to alcohol is. And you know, if I'm starting to notice that, you know, a woman is a little - seeming a little loopy, then I might say to the fly attendants, hey, how many of you served, you know, the woman in 18 Charlie? And she'll say, oh, let's see - and she'll count them up. You know, I guess that's two. And I'll say, OK, well, I served her two as well. Then we'll circle in the other flight attendant. Now we've got a count. So then you know, we can start slow playing, you know, when we bring her drinks. Or if we decide that we are going to cut her off, you know, we do it united as a crew, and we hold firm to that.
And there's also other little tricks like bartending tricks. We'll sometimes, if we're making a drink for someone, you pour the alcohol into the bottom of the glass, and then you fill the filler for the rest of it. And then in the stir stick straw, you pour a little bit of alcohol down the straw so that when they take that first sip, they think they're getting, like, a really strong drink when really it's mainly just filler.
DAVIES: Can you usually tell what somebody's drink is going to be?
NEWMAN: I can. That's like a neat flight attendant party trick. I usually can walk up to a row and with fairly decent accuracy be able to call what a person's going to drink before they order it.
DAVIES: Now, are we talking of alcoholic drinks or all beverages?
NEWMAN: Just all beverages.
DAVIES: Wow. So...
NEWMAN: Yeah, down to not just that you're going to ask for coffee, but I know how you are going to take it...
DAVIES: Oh, gosh.
NEWMAN: ...you want cream or sugar.
DAVIES: So how do you - so give us one, you know, one tell.
NEWMAN: It's - you know, well, first of all, the tells are cities. Like, you get to know your destinations very well, also. If I'm going into Boston, I know my seltzer is gone. If I'm - my tea - put all the tea bags you have on the cart 'cause they're going to drink all of it. So you get to know your routes, first of all, and then really it's the person. It's, like - you know, I've said this multiple times in the conversation. It's - you know, we're trained to read people and to pick up on subtle cues and body language and what they're wearing and how they're acting. And all of those subtle cues, they also add up to something as silly and inconsequential as, what can I get you to drink?
DAVIES: Well, T.J. Newman, it's been fun. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
NEWMAN: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me on. This has been great.
DAVIES: T.J. Newman spent 10 years as a flight attendant. Her debut novel, "Falling," is out in paperback. Our interview was recorded in July 2021. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Elvis," the new movie by Baz Luhrmann. This is FRESH AIR.
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