Skies Aren't So Friendly For Many Flight Attendants When JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater grabbed two beers and took an emergency exit slide earlier this week, he became an instant media sensation. He now also faces charges of criminal mischief and reckless endangerment -- but many flight attendants say they know where he was coming from.
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Skies Aren't So Friendly For Many Flight Attendants

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Skies Aren't So Friendly For Many Flight Attendants

Skies Aren't So Friendly For Many Flight Attendants

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Like Sergeant Allen in Chicago, Steven Slater also made news for his displeasure with working conditions this week. He's that JetBlue flight attendant who grabbed a couple of brewskis and took an emergency exit slide straight into media stardom, but now faces charges of criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, many flight attendants say that they understand Steven Slater's attitude.

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentlemen, this will be a full flight. I do see a few roller boards in the upper bins, and the luggage is sticking out. You do need to get up, make sure that that luggage does close.

TAMARA KEITH: For veteran flight attendant Alin Boswell, this is by far the worst part of his job - boarding the plane.

Mr. ALIN BOSWELL: Dealing with the bags, dealing with everything that goes on with families separated, whatever is occurring, is the most frustrating part.

KEITH: He says ever since the airlines started charging to check bags, passengers have been trying to stuff as much as they can into the overhead bins.

Mr. BOSWELL: And when room runs out, room runs out. We don't design the airplanes, we just work 'em.

KEITH: Reports are, it was a fight over carry-on baggage that sent the Jet Blue flight attendant over the edge. Rene Foss has been a flight attendant for 25 years.

Ms. RENE FOSS (Flight Attendant): And I'm proud to say I haven't blown a chute yet.

KEITH: But she says she's certainly had that feeling inside, like ahhh, I just want out.

Ms. FOSS: My first reaction was, wow, I can't believe somebody has finally done this.

KEITH: I caught up with her by cell phone from the Minneapolis airport, where she was waiting for a flight. Foss' mom was a flight attendant back when they were still called stewardesses.�Foss says the job has gotten a lot less glamorous since then - as has flying. Going through security is a pain, meals aren't free, even free peanuts are hard to come by. And good luck trying to find a pillow.�

Ms. FOSS: Sometimes, the flight attendant is just the recipient of all the terrible things that have happened throughout the trip, and that's kind of a tough spot to be in.

KEITH: And she's been in that spot many times.�

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the airline industry, says full flights and grumpy passengers are nothing new.

Mr. DAVID CASTELVETER (Air Transport Association): I think what has changed are societal norms, and there is a sense of expectation and entitlement by passengers. And sadly, it has made the challenge for our flight crews more difficult.

KEITH: But it is a customer-service business, and dealing with passengers is just part of the job. Veda Shook is the international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants, and she's also a working flight attendant. So how does she cope?

Ms. VEDA SHOOK (Association of Flight Attendants): You just put on a smile and say, I'll get right back to you.�

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: But seriously, she and others say the job has gotten a lot harder since 9/11. Flight attendants have more responsibilities. And many saw their wages and benefits cut as airlines struggled to stay in business.�

According to the flight attendant's union, the average salary is $35,000 a year. For those starting out, it's more like 20,000. Alin Boswell says he works more now, for less pay.

Mr. BOSWELL: As the work rules changed. That means that you have to work longer days for fewer hours, and more days just to get the same hours in.

KEITH: But he still loves the job because of the flexible schedule and the variety - different co-workers and passengers all the time. He says he can't wait to get back in the sky to see if maybe, just maybe, the JetBlue two-beers-and-a-slide incident will inspire the passengers to be a little kinder.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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