Flight Attendant Slater: Heroic Or Unprofessional? JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater quit his job in a fit of anger, after being hit on the head by an allegedly rude passenger's luggage. The incident has resonated with flight attendants who deal with the rough world of customer service in the less-than-friendly skies.
NPR logo

Flight Attendant Slater: Heroic Or Unprofessional?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129131988/129131981" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Flight Attendant Slater: Heroic Or Unprofessional?

Flight Attendant Slater: Heroic Or Unprofessional?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129131988/129131981" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

By now, you've all heard the dramatic end of Steven Slater's career as a flight attendant for JetBlue. After one too many arguments with a passenger, Slater issued his declaration of independence over the intercom, grabbed two beers from the drinks cart, and slid down the plane's emergency chute - into legend, which may have its price. Slater faces criminal charges, but at least some people who work for the - not for - not - work in the not-so-friendly skies of modern aviation, cheered.

So flight attendants: If you've had moments when you wanted to bail out, call us. Is Steven Slater's story your story? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go first to Chuck(ph). And Chuck's on the line, with us from Newark in New Jersey.

CHUCK (Caller): Hello, yes...

CONAN: Chuck?

CHUCK: Hi. Yes. How are you doing?

CONAN: Well, thank you. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CHUCK: Yes, I - you know, I just heard that - you said that a lot of flight attendants cheered, and they were, you know, put an attaboy to his response to the passenger who was on the flight. And I can't necessarily say that I agree with that. I'm a professional, and we are trained to handle people of - in any situation. And you'll often have people that, I don't know - we don't know what's going on in these people's lives. And also, there are times when people feel as if they can act, you know, any kind of way they want to act. But it's up to us to decipher how to handle these people, and that certainly wasn't the way -certainly was not the proper way to handle it. And I wouldn't have done it, myself.

I've had situations where people have acted really, in unseemly ways, but there are much better ways of handling these situations than off on the slide and taking the drink as you go. And what kind of reflection does that have on your company that you work for as well? So, there's a lot of implications that follow.

CONAN: Oh, A lot of implications, but I think it's a company he used to work for. I don't think Mr. Slater expects to be working for JetBlue anytime again soon.

CHUCK: No, I don't think he will be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHUCK: Or any other airline, for that matter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I suspect that may be right. Chuck, there must have been incidents in your life, in the plane, where the impulse, at least, feels familiar.

CHUCK: Well, of course. You know, we're human. You know, we're human, and the impulse may - it may have crossed your mind but at the same time, as I said, because you are trained - and we are trained, and we are professionals. And what I - when I've had instances where someone has really, you know, gotten on my nerve or started to pull the switch or whatever, I usually try not to communicate with that person anymore. I deflect them - deflect it to - I refer them to someone else or ask someone else - one of my other co-workers to deal with him. And I will remove myself from the situation.

I want a job. I want to keep my job. I don't want to go out that way, so to speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Chuck, thanks. Thanks - when's your next flight, by the way?

CHUCK: Im going to work right now. I'm going to Barcelona.

CONAN: You're going to Barcelona? Well...

CHUCK: Yes.

CONAN: ...good luck to you, and I hope everything fits into the bin - overhead bin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHUCK: So do I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHUCK: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Christy(ph) in Denver. I am a flight attendant, and I can tell you that crew members everywhere are secretly or loudly supporting Steven Slater. As much as we love our jobs, the majority of the flying public and the industry, people would have a hard time to believe the treatment that we have to endure with a smile on our face. Mr. Slater was treated poorly one time too many. What a way to go out.

And while there's various reports filed with the Federal Aviation Administration, in December 2009, the FAA released a report on flight attendant fatigue, which tried to analyze what contributes to that problem and looked at complaints filed by cabin crews. And more than 80 percent of the reports filed cited disruptive or rude passengers. Other elements that contributed to fatigue included, well, weather problems, 18-hour-plus workdays, lack of sleep, jetlag, missing meals, engine problems.

Again, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And Jerry's(ph) on the line with us from O'Fallon in Missouri.

JERRY (Caller): Well, I'm certainly not going to apologize on behalf of the passenger. But I think part of the problem is that the gap between what people expect in commercial aviation and especially, what years and years of past advertising led them to believe and what the reality is, is just ever widening. So before people even get on the aircraft, they're already frustrated. And then, a certain number of people do have as some of my former flight attendant colleagues used to actually say to people - you have obviously confused service with servitude. So as we used to say, perhaps, the outside the aircraft, should you know, should be emblazoned like an aerosol can, contents under pressure.

CONAN: Contents under pressure, I think thats probably accurate. And these days, it seems like none of the seats are ever empty.

JERRY: No. And of course, back when I started in the business, 30 years - 30-plus years ago, if you had an overall, daily, systemwide load factor of like, 60 percent, you were profitable. But of course, as you remember, the fares were much higher, and we werent always dependent on filling those last few seats to make the profit.

CONAN: Or selling the pillow or the blanket.

JERRY: Yes, exactly. Yes.

CONAN: All right. So...

JERRY: Thats true. Now - as they say, now that things havebecome unbundled and that your ticket price is just the starting point - again, its just another notch, raising the frustration level just a notch more.

CONAN: All right, Jerry. Thanks very much.

JERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Lets go next to Peggy(ph), Peggy with us from Jamesville in New York.

PEGGY (Caller): Hi, there. Yes. I used to fly for Pan American Airlines, which was a fabulous airline. And we miss it greatly. And of course, what this gentleman did was pretty heinous. But I can say that I think all flight attendants and ex-flight attendants are silently cheering because weve all been there, and weve all wanted to do something like that, but couldnt because wed lose our job. So I feel sorry for him, but yet he probably shouldnt have taken it that hard.

CONAN: Well, yeah, and may pay for that in court. But was there an incident, Peggy, that you could remember that made you want to open the door and jump out?

PEGGY: Well, it was actually in midair, so I couldnt have done that. But I remember very clearly a time when I was still on probation, which meant they could fire you at will, basically, if you did anything wrong. And I was very tired because I had been up like, 30 hours, and I was carrying a load of dirty trays back to the galley. And this drunk guy tries to put his tray on top, and he did it in a way that make me made me dump the dirty trays in his lap by accident. And he got up and was slurring and said, ah, whats your name? Im going to report you to the to management, and I started crying.

And but I had the sense to give him a wrong last name, so I gave him my first name, Peggy, but I think I said Smith, or something like that. So somewhere in the skies of Pan Am, there was a letter about Peggy Smith, who dumped trays on this guy, but it wasnt me. But oh, yeah, I weve all been there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Peggy, thanks very much for the call.

PEGGY: Sure.

CONAN: Bye-bye. An email from Barry(ph) in Miami: The flight attendant missed a bet. He should have asked the captain to have the police waiting, and charged the passenger with interfering with the flight crew. The behavior of the passenger described in the news reports is unacceptable public behavior, should not be tolerated. It should be reported to the authorities.

This is from Jim(ph). Its fun to sympathize with a flight attendant who was finally pushed too far. However, lots of us have had to face inappropriate behavior from customers, and most of us act professionally. I spent 30 years in financial services and during that time, was cursed at and accused of all manner of nefarious behavior. I kept my cool and acted professionally. Im not asking for praise; I was just doing my job. Mr. Slater lost his cool and acted unprofessionally. He deserves no praise, and he is no role model.

Lets go next to Joe(ph), Joe with us from Tampa. Joe, are you there? Joe? I think Joe has left us. Lets go instead to this is Brenda(ph), Brenda with us from Cincinnati.

BRENDA (Caller): Hi. I was just calling because I am a flight attendant. And so far this month, Ive had three flights in a row where I got to clean up vomit. That's the glamour part of the job.

CONAN: Thats...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRENDA: I do understand the frustration Mr. Slater must have been feeling, and we do go through that almost on a daily basis. You know, as we like to say, weve never seen the passenger arrive at the gate before the airplane, but that passenger was certainly trying to. I think it shows a general lack of patience and courtesy in our society. I deal with a lot of professional - businessmen who are very nice. They know how the system works. They come on. They stow their bags. They sit down and theyre polite, and theyre appreciative of what we do.

But then we have those people who just are just total lack of manners, and a total lack of patience. And I know theres a lot of stress and pressure in the world but you know, you have to remember that we do still have to have some courtesy. You cant be totally rude to everyone around you to get what you want.

CONAN: Its interesting. There was a story in the Washington Post today by Monica Hesse. And she said, passengers can all be divided into four types - she quotes a no-nonsense flight attendant who has whittled the chaos of airline travel into logical precision. The four types she describes are: A, all about me; B, business; C, casual; and D, deer in headlights.

BRENDA: I totally agree with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And she says, the problems are A and D.

BRENDA: I see those types all four types every day.

CONAN: All four types every day. All right, Brenda. Thanks very are you on your way to a flight?

BRENDA: No, but I will be in a few days - to Paris.

CONAN: Well, at least youre going to Paris.

BRENDA: Yes, I love it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

BRENDA: Thank you.

CONAN: Heres an email from Marty(ph) in Harleysville, in Missouri. I was a ticket agent for Northwest for eight years. Though not a flight attendant, I experienced much the same behavior from passengers. For some reason, flight brings out the worst in people, especially those who seldom fly. You could see them coming a mile away, the once-in-a-year flier in their nylon running suit. Usually, the destination was always Las Vegas. They considered themselves frequent fliers owed kingly treatment. I dont miss that business one little bit.

And this, from Jillian(ph): As a prior flight attendant for a major airline, I can tell you that when I heard the story, I cheered inside. The unfortunate part is that I visualize this gentleman's incident. I cannot begin to explain the number of times I endured disrespect and crude passengers. I feel his pain. However, I would never have had enough gall to go out like he did. I chose the more formidable route - I joined the United States Air Force and decided to serve others in a more enriching manner.

We're talking with flight attendants today, about the story of Steven Slater, who exited rather spectacularly from the airline business earlier this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's go next to John(ph), John calling us from Madison in Wisconsin.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, can you hear me?

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JOHN: Yes, remember that flight attendants are - the first victims of 9/11. I don't think this is funny what happened yesterday - or the day before. I think it's the beginning, and you're going to see more of it. I work for Delta, which is not a very nice place to work. All they're interested in is trying to defeat the union with the flight attendants. And the corruption of the FAA, which just lets the corporations tell them what to do, really puts security in the backseat. There's a lot more things that go on that you don't know about, and that the media doesn't cover. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

CONAN: What do you mean, things that we don't know about and don't cover? If you don't tell us what they are, we don't know what they are.

JOHN: Well, I think that you could know them, but you choose not to cover them. And security is still a very big issue. For example, at our airline, you know, you've heard about the Christmas Day bomber. There were two other incidents that day - didn't make the news.

And I dont want people to be scared but - because I want them to still buy tickets - but I just think that it's not over yet. There's still another shoe to drop, and I think that the corporations are telling the FAA what to do, and it's - this is just the beginning.

CONAN: All right. John, thanks very much. Here's an email from Scotty(ph) in Virginia Beach. I put myself through graduate school flying as a flight attendant for US Air. I found most passengers to be understanding and compliant to the rules when I explain them. On one occasion, we hit turbulence, and I spilled a tray with 12 glasses of orange juice all over a passenger, just like in the movies. He was wonderful - just laughed. We gave him a well-earned bottle of champagne when he exited the plane.

And let's go next to Jack(ph), Jack with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

JACK (Caller): Hi, that last story was kind of nice because that's something that I would've done. I started out at Eastern, and then I left Eastern Airlines to go work for Pan Am. And then I was at the tail end of Pan Am before they disappeared, and I ended up going to Delta. And back when Delta Airlines was, I thought, like, one of the classier flights that you could take from one point to another - don't tell me that all of those people in there aren't going to pop. And I'm not surprised that there aren't more good stories. There's a lot of good stories in being one of the highest-paid waiters or waitresses you can get, salary wise. I mean, think about it, that's really what the job is.

CONAN: I think our previous caller would've said the job is to enforce, you know, work on security for the passengers.

JACK: That's part of it. But you're really, like, the highest-paid waiter or waitress there, because people don't - they'll acknowledge that when push comes to shove. But a lot of the hand gestures and, really, everything is in the front seat. And so we really just kind of like waiter or waitress people and serve them, because they're stuck there, and that's kind of like you're one of the highest-paid waiter or waitresses there really is, or steward or stewardess. And when I worked for the airline, I couldn't take it anymore. I ended up having a grand mal seizure and nervous breakdown. And I ended up going on permanent disability, and I'm permanently disabled because of it.

CONAN: Well, I'm sorry to hear that, Jack.

JACK: Well, no. But I'm just wanting to let people know that flying can be a really cool experience. There are people that have never been on a plane before. Don't expect them not to get sick. There are kids that love it. And I think that we should have first class back the way it used to be, just kind of like not so that you can't see into first class. And I think that we should have first-class service. We have new planes coming out now that will really help give more order to the passenger, and for the steward and stewardess that work there.

CONAN: All right.

JACK: So, you know, there are a lot of good things that happened, but I had a major nervous breakdown and I ended up on disability, and it's okay. But I don't miss it. But it was a part of my life that when I was going to graduate school, I needed to pay for school, too. I heard that earlier, somebody called. I had to pay for school, too. And so I needed a job, and that job - they were very flexible with me, and they liked me because I would go on long trips and I could be - I could stay up for about 40 hours at a time.

CONAN: All right. Jack, thanks very much call. Appreciate it.

This is from Mary Lee(ph) in Oakland. Years ago, I was working a MAC flight from the Far East - that's a military flight. There was a military man who delighted in sticking his foot out just as I was walking by with several trays of food. That was when we served meals from the galley, and not off a cart. Finally, when I was delivering towards the back of my section on a long DC-8 stretch, I truly tripped, and food went flying down the aisle. Strangely enough, about an hour later, I stumbled again and poured a pot of not-too-hot coffee in the same gentleman's lap.

And this is from Elizabeth(ph): Having been a flight attendant, I took seriously my position as the frontline representative of the airline. And even though I encountered many obnoxious passengers, most often the passengers were well-behaved - and overcame many of those negative experiences. I believe this is not just airline specific, but a symptom of what is happening in society today. The snap of nerves permeates the workplace in general. And she may be right about that.

Thank you to all of you who called, and to those who wrote in by email. We're sorry we could not get to all of your responses. Tomorrow, the Social Security Administration says, for the first time in 27 years, it's paying out more in benefits than it receives from payroll taxes. Well, how does early retirement play into that? And are you going to still be able to count on Social Security for your retirement plans? That's all tomorrow. I'm Neal Conan. That'll be Social Security 101, on the next TALK OF THE NATION.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.