Tension in the Skies: Towards A New Inflight Etiquette / by Amy Thibodeau


By now most of you have probably read about Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who had a meltdown after a passenger disrespected him following a landing at Kennedy Airport. Basically, the plane landed and a passenger prematurely stood up to remove luggage from the overhead compartment. Slater asked him to remain seated until advised it was safe to stand and the passenger decided not to listen and continued to remove his baggage. As Slater approached him one of the bags hit him in the head. When he asked for an apology, the customer instead cursed him out and in turn Slater returned the favor over the intercom before grabbing a beer, deploying the emergency slide exit and vacating out of the airplane.

It's a nasty story and one that leaves me feeling stunned that both parties managed to behave as stupidly as possible. There is no hero in this story; only two people who both handled the situation badly and an unfortunate bunch of innocent passengers who were made to listen to the exchange and who were probably delayed after the slide exit was deployed.

A little secret? I hate flying. I do it with great frequency, taking between six and ten long haul flights a year plus a number of shorter domestic flights. In addition to a heightened sense of discomfort at being suspended thousands of feet in the air and the reality of being closer to a hundred odd strangers than I would ever want to be in any other circumstance, I hate the sense of imprisonment. There is no leaving an airplane once it's taken off, no matter how uncomfortable the seat, how bad the food or how unpleasant the service. In one of my worst experiences to date, I was flying from San Francisco to London, UK and even before my flight took off, the man next to me began belching and vomiting in his little baggy. It was a long nine hours!

As much as I dislike flying, I cannot imagine the difficulty of being a flight attendant. In addition to the discomfort of flying, they are dealing with jet lag as an every day reality, eating horrible food, breathing that dry, recirculated air and, most of all, are as trapped as their customers are - unable to get away from potentially abusive, unkind and unreasonable people. In the current economic climate, most of them are also contending with cheap airlines who, although they continue to pay their CEOs high salaries, are nickleing and dimeing customers and cutting in air service.

Some will argue that flight attendants choose this career and that's true. But as customers, we also choose to fly knowing the constraints and realities. In spite of the airline bureaucrats, airline attendants and passengers need to come to a new way of working together with zero tolerance for inappropriate or rude behavior. Flight attendants need to hold their colleagues to a higher standard just as passengers should not tolerate bullies among them.


My tips for flight attendants can pretty much be boiled down to three points:

  • Remember that your customers have probably paid a lot of money for an experience that is just a means to an end. Few people actually enjoy the experience of flying and while feeling trapped thousands of feet up in the air, the last thing we want to feel is talked down to. Yes, you are in charge and that is for the good of our safety but maybe you can come up with a way of communicating your requests to us in a way that doesn't make us feel like children. This is obviously a generalization and some flight attendants are excellent communicators but many others give the impression of being on a power trip. Don't treat us like children and we won't act like that's what we are.
  • Tell us what's going on. If there's a problem or a delay or even something like a glitch with the in flight entertainment system please just let us know. Maybe apologize for it, even if it isn't your fault.
  • If someone is unhappy about something, listen. Most of us understand that you can only control a certain range of things. I've witnessed flight attendants get very defensive to customer complaints very quickly and that hostility only breeds more hostility and tension. Most people just want their complaint to be heard. We don't want an excuse, we just want you to acknowledge the problem and listen to us. Then most of us, the reasonable ones anyway, will move on and let you get on with your work.

I've had many moments of frustration on airplanes and although most of these problems can't be traced back to a flight attendant, they could have worked with customers to make the situation better. Last autumn prior to that fateful flight from San Francisco to London where I was seated next to the vomiting man, we were told only moments before boarding that the airline overbooked the flight and about a dozen of us weren't sure if we were going to have a seat. The flight attendant at the airline terminal didn't help. He was rude and curt and played the "I'm in charge" card telling a good number of rightfully concerned passengers to basically sit down and shut up. Although it wasn't his fault that United overbooked our flight, he wasn't nice and did nothing to calm or prep us to be good natured to the in flight attendants on the ten hour trip.

But the responsibility isn't completely on the airlines or flight attendants. In the Monday's JetBlue scenario, the passenger was completely out of line, although I'm sure he didn't predict the response he would get for his bad behavior. Still, he's an example of how not to behave in public (or private) to anyone, ever. We can learn about being good passengers by doing exactly the opposite of what he did:

  • If humanly possible, follow the rules. If you aren't supposed to stand up, don't stand up. If you're not supposed to listen to your iPod, don't listen to your iPod. Most of these things are safety related and aren't particularly unreasonable. Believe me, even if your mom told you that you're more important than the rest of us and therefore outside of the rules, chances are she was wrong. Your willingness to risk your own safety doesn't take into account that on an airplane, we're all crammed into that tin can with you and I would rather your luggage not fall on my head, thanks very much.
  • If you accidentally bump someone with your luggage or any part of your person, take two seconds and apologize for it. For most of us, the experience of flying will see even the inner boundaries of our personal space invaded by strangers for hours on end. It's uncomfortable. Try to be conscious of where the boundaries are and respect them; and if you accidentally overstep, acknowledge it.
  • Of all the places to get really pissed off, an airplane has be the worst. If you believe you are really being mistreated by a flight attendant or fellow passenger, write it down and save your anger for the moment you step off the airplane in your next port of call. Once you're there, ask to speak to a manager and be as angry as you like; stew in it for hours if it makes you feel better. But while you are on the airplane, keep it quiet. Think about it: you are cruising thousands of feet above the earth in a tiny tube where everyone has to share every detail of your tantrum for hours and hours. Do you really want to do that to them? Do you really want to do that to yourself? People who have temper tantrums on an airplane are embarrassing. You don't want to be one of those people.
  • This sounds silly and obvious, but flight attendants are people too. Most of them don't make a lot of money and there aren't a lot of perks to the job. Chances are, if they run out of beef for the in flight meal and that's what you wanted, it isn't because the flight attendant decided to screw you. It's probably because the CEO or board wanted to cut a corner. Save that anger, write a letter to them. Don't mistreat the flight attendant for circumstances beyond their control. Put yourself in their shoes and try to be reasonable.

None of this is rocket science and it boils down pretty neatly to: be nice and reasonable. Incidents like what happened on JetBlue on Monday are unacceptable and should never happen outside of a group of toddlers fighting over a toy. And even then, I would expect the mommies to intervene and tell their children to behave themselves.

What do you think? Please add your suggestions to the comments section below.

Image Credits:

Tantrum! by Carlo Nicora On the Loose from We Heart It