Steven Slater JetBlue: The "joy" of flying

Aug 13, 2010

Petula Dvorak will be online Friday, Aug. 13, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the uproar over the Steven Slater JetBlue incident and how flying can be a frustrating experience for not only flight attendants but the general public.

Flying is a pain for everyone, so why does Steven Slater get to throw a tantrum?

Good afternoon! You think Snakes on a Plane scare people? Looks like Kids on a Plane is a far more terrifying prospect. We've had a downpour of email from folks about the Steven Slater airplane temper tantrum. Many focused on children, as I did, and how they can seriously strain everyone on board. Or how some flight attendants are getting less patient with all of us, as air travel is getting to be horrid for all involved. And to top that off, some of Steven Slater's story is beginning to unravel...so, let's begin.

Why do parents think that others (including flight attendants) should be your babysitters on a plane? If you want to travel with your kids, then you have to be responsible for them. It really is galling for those of us without kids to have to put up with yours!

Babysit? My goodness. I've yet to see any parent who wants babysitting. I think assistance (and shall I go so far as kindness?) is all anyone's asking for. Listen, kids aren't exotic pets or alien creatures, they are little people. Just like you once were. And being inside a very small space with lots of people for a long time is especially difficult for this type of human. When we ask for help (which usually is a hand with a car seat, a couple extra napkins, a swap in airline-assigned seating so that a 3-year-old isn't sitting alone next to a 40-year-old business traveller (now THAT would be babysitting)), it is so that the child is quiet and comfortable and doesn't disturb everyone else around us. Isn't that what you want? A quiet, content kid that you don't have to put up with?  

....mean to take the tone that flight attendants, airlines, passengers, the world, should bend around people with children? Your article certainly read like that and it does not endear people to your lot. I would rather sit next to a drunk or business person (but not a fat one) because you can tell them to shut up. I'm sick of listening to a parent try to negotiate for an hour with the kid who won't be quiet or behave. I would love a moratorium on talking and noise in the plane.

Earplugs? Doesn't really work with a drunk guy...But that quiet you seek can be found in a nice pair of Bose noise eliminators..available in your Sky Mall catalog, I'm sure

Can you explain why you didn't take responsibility for your family's seat assignments? It's not the flight attendant's job to force others on the plane to move. Just to be clear - I love kids and have one on the way, but plane trips are hard on everyone. Your piece suggests you have a special right to service with a smile because you choose to fly 4 kids cross-country with 1 adult.

Generally, we do our best, when booking flights, to get seat assignments together. Of course! But it's not always easy to do when you're booking for four people (2 adults, 2 kids for us, but I sat next to a family with 4 kids this week--wow.) Usually, when you get to the seat assignment part of the booking, most the aisles and exits are already booked, so then you're at the mercy of the gate agent, and then the flight attendant to help you. I don't think anyone is asking for special rights...it's just logic that small children can't sit alone between two strangers. Talk about the complaining then? You think the guy all snuggled in his neck pillow and iPod wants to play Uno or do a puppet show or stickerbooks or color for 3,000? Probably not. Again, I think the only goal of parents travelling with kids to to keep them quiet, thus everyone else is happy.

Putting aside all the emotioned issues, what were the physical dangers involved in activating an emergency chute? How much damage and delay does that do to an airplane and could unaware personnel on the ground potentially been harmed if this chute had hit them?

Folks on the ground could've been smacked by that emergency chute (sorry Mr. Baggage Handler, I'm having a temper tantrum)! I believe it's going to cost the airline a pretty penny (oops, looks like no more free soda) to fix the chute, CBS reported about $25,000. i"m sure that jet was out of service for quiet a while, sorry passengers waiting to fly...http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/08/11/earlyshow/main6763117.shtml

Lots of people have deemed the passenger that caused Slater's behavior selfish, well, Slater is just as selfish as he/she is. He caused a delay for the other passengers, crew and JetBlue itself (besides the costs of deploying the emergency slide) because he was angry and upset. He's not a hero. They both are jerks. If he gets to keep his job, that's a mistake. Actually though, this goes with the flow of people behaving badly and being rewarded and recognized as though they helped mankind in some wonderful way. Look at what this is teaching kids who we often wonder why so many choose to behave badly. I'm hoping more folks don't just lose it in thinking they might get 15 minutes or more of fame or a reality show. It's truly silly behavior by so-called adults. I wish I would hear that the majority of adults feel he was wrong and should not have done that despite his emotions at the time. My attorney (a real jerk) once threw a telephone (the whole thing was ripped from the wall) at a colleague who infuriated him-- should she have held the nearby attorneys hostage for awhile?

Sure, what he did is funny and a great media moment. But let's get serious. The passenger (it sounds like) was a brat. He was a brat. That doesn't make him a hero.

I thought I was being funny once when I was going through security and TSA asked me to take the little leather booties off my 9-month-old. I obliged, but not without cracking: "What, you think he's got a shank hidden in his Pedoodle?" That got me a trip to the clear acrylic box, where both of us were serioulsy searched. Point taken. They say no joking in line. I was a brat. I paid the price. Why is it OK for Slater to be this funny when everything about air travel is SO SERIOUS these days?

Hated it. As a frequent traveler my biggest pet peeve is families flying. The airline that separates business travelers and family/leisure travelers onto separate flights will make a killing. I completely empathize with flight attendants. Slater's story seems to be changing, but having dealt personally with fellow travelers who left phones on to check football scores (thanks for jeopardizing 160 peoples safety for your entertainment jerk) or the guy last week who wouldn't shut off his phone (I told him I was a federal attorney and would be happy to write up a complaint)...the worst part of flying is the public.

Flying is a pain for everyone, so why does Steven Slater get to throw a tantrum?

Brilliant idea! I would LOVE a family-friendly plane. I've even noticed that some airlines sit the families close together--that's always a good idea, I think. Trust me, I was that frequent flier, business travel all over with no kids, once. I didn't like hearing them either. But now that I have kids, I'll tell you, for most of us parents (there are some exceptions, natch), those are terrifying, exhausting hours aboard a plane, when we are doing everything we can (have you ever seen a prepared parents airline craft kit--Michael's in a bag), to keep from getting that evil stare from childless passengers. REALLY!

I've been a lot more tolerant of crying infants and toddlers on planes since I read that they have much shorter inner-ear tubes than adults do, which means that changes in pressure that an adult can handle can be very painful for them. Crying also exercises the jaw in the way that chewing gum does, helps release the pressure. It's not pleasant for anybody, of course, but if we could all be a little more understanding, flying would be a better experience.

Thank you. The crying hurts everyone. It hurts our ears too, it hurts to hear a kid suffer and it hurts to get that dreadful look from other passengers. Sucking on a bottle, a candy, a sippy cup or breastfeeding (depending on their age), helps with that inner-ear thing too. Bless you for understanding, really, it means the world to parents.

I don't care how many children you bring on board, just stop the singing! By the kids, by the adults to the kids, by kids & their adults. It's not cute even for 2 minutes.

Amen! Can we establish a no-singing section? Really.

Petula, you state flying is a pain for everyone. Why is this? the answer is the system is broken. We are forcing flight attendants to be police officers and yet they are neither equipped or trained for the task. Did you know that there are handcuffs on board the plane for crew use? I was in the industry for twenty years and towards the end I was grateful for a cockpit door that separated me from the passengers. I do not know how to remedy the situation as the FAA forces the crew to implement many uncalled for rules and then fine the crews if the passengers do not follow them. We need to return to the time of self responsibility and manners. I despise flying as a a passenger. I do not excuse Mr. Slater's action but I can see how it could come to that. We need to get our personal freedoms back on an airplane and to do that we need some self restraint. Unfortunately the regulations that we have to work with today make passengers prisoners and Flight Attendants that Wardens. How do you suggest we change that?

You make an excellent point. Of course, I think most reasonable people can imagine that being a flight attendant is a really difficult job. Everytime we get someone who goes out of their way to help, we send a letter complimenting that person as soon as we get home. But you are right, you are asked to police an unreasonable set of rules all the while, new ways to thwart your rules (iPad, iPod, portable DVDs, etc) are being thrown your way. And I bet none of that $8 billion in baggage fees the airlines collected last year made it way to the paychecks of those who are expected to do more and more every day. Thank you for your 20 years in the air, and for being the one to help someone out when they really needed and deserved it. How to change it? I wish airlines put more money toward training, helping flight attendants get more facile at resolving conflicts. Our police department uses something called Verbal Judo...from the many conflicts I've seen on plane, I doubt that is part of the training.  

As a mom of a toddler whose parents (toddler's grandparents) live 2,000 miles away, flying is the only way we get to see my parents. The days leading up to flights are so nerve-wracking for me. Will he behave or won't he? We were on a flight once that was stuck at the gate (after we had boarded, of course) for two hours and then transferred to another plane. My son had just fallen asleep when we had to make the switch to another plane. Most people around us were sympathetic to my crying little guy, but there was one man shooting daggers. Doesn't he see that I'm in far more pain than he?! Trust me, we parents don't relishing making others miserable. I promise.

My sentiments exactly. Thanks, mom.

Anybody who has worked in any type of service industry has probably had a few moments where they would like to go postal on the customer. Pour the soup in the jerk's lap, tell the woman she has to take her burger with cheese, or scream at the mother in the waiting room that you hate being stuck there too. But this clown went above and beyond. So he's having a bad day and maybe the passenger was as horrible as he says. Doesn't excuse a dangerous and illegal stunt. Flying is by nature more hazzardous than may other forms of travel and I for one would want the flight crew to be held to a higher standard than the average joe. Unfortunately, I also get the feeling that the wages the airlines pay may not be enough to actually hire the right kind of people. I guess if you can fog a mirror, pass a drug test and aren't a terrorist then you can get this fools job.

YES!!!! I worked as a waitress throughout high school and college. Do you have any idea the maple syrup and steak knife fantasies I had? My parents were both in the service industry too. I was a total fan of Steven Slater for the first two days after he did this. Then I really started thinking about it, and decided he did not honor the men and women who are good at their jobs, and he underscored the ire of many passengers who are feeling especially abused by the airline industry these days.

It would have been funny in a cartoon or movie. It's not funny in real life (sorry, I know this is your position, too, I just hadda say).

Yup, would've been an awesome scene in Airplane 7. Not so much in real life, at Gate 7.

Most people (including myself) experience the rotten airline service that is the subject of your rant today because they are either too poor or too cheap to shell out for better service (when it is available). How much did you pay for your family's cross-country airline trips? Would you be willing to pay 1960s style fares (I recently read these would probably be two or three times the average fare paid today) for 1960s style comfort and service? Have you considered just getting an iPhone 4 with Face Time so your children and their grandparents can see each other?

The cost of ANY family's airline trip is huge. Especially once you start paying for both kids (gone are the days of discount tickets for kids, bummer as a parent, but makes perfect sense, they are still taking up a seat, logic goes they should pay a full fare, I'm cool with that). I don't think too many families can afford to fly too often these days. And I don't think it should matter why they fly. Airtravel is not a luxury, reserved for the jetset a la 1960s pretty suits, fancy flight attendant uniforms and linen napkins. It is transport. Period. If I hunt around, a cross-country flight (if you're willing to fly crap hours/plan way ahead/transfer) can go for about $300. It kills us financially to travel, but it just so happens that , 3 of our 4 parents are battling potentially fatal illnesses right now. We Skype as much as possible, but I'm darn sure going to cut out dinners out and salon visits (hello clairol) and anything else in our budgets so that my kids get to fish at all my dad's favorite fishing holes 3,000 miles away before lung cancer makes that impossible. Emotional rant over.

I cannot believe all these snarky people writing in saying this is only the parents' problem. Do you really think families don't have a right to sit together just because they couldn't get their seat assignments early enough? It would be so easy for the flight attendants to rearrange a few people before boarding or you to change seats so a little kid can seat next to his mom!

Thank you! This is a problem because a couple times now (and I witnessed this myself on Wednesday, when I was flying without my kids, but watched --and then helped-- a family with four kids try to get their seats together) and the flight attendant wouldn't help them. They tell us (and that family) to deal with it ourselves, so then we have to go and beg people to move around, cajole them to switch, essentially, do the flight attendants' job for them. Most of the time, they get a better seat out of it because we give them our aisle for their window...

My husband recently told a complainer to shut up about a baby crying. The baby was miles away in the back, wasn't screaming, and the guy behind us kept muttering loudly and swearing about it -- being MUCH more disturbing than the poor kid!

Husband of the week medal for him!!! Again...earplugs?

Do you know why the airlines stopped permitting families to pre-board? To all those who have ever been behind me getting on the plane - I'm sorry I took an extra minute trying to get my toddler (and all his gear) in the seat, but I would already have been out of your way if I had been allowed to pre-board. And what (constructive) things to you suggest for negative flight attendant attitudes/comments? (Is there a flight attendant code of conduct?) By the way, my attitude to all the anti-family-flyers is: "Get over it." I do a lot of business travel, and your average not-frequent-flyer-vacationer can be just as bad (ever tried to watch them check in using those self-service computers?).

That's been a mystery to me and I'll do some reporting on that. Like you said, it's not for our benefit (though I confess being snarky about it in my childless days), it's to let the rest of the flight board smoothly. I was in an airport on Monday with my two kids, FOUR hour delay on top of a 1 hour layover...ick. When we were finally boarding at 1 a.m. East Coast time, I counted FIVE mothers with strollers (4 of us were alone, with just the kids) and we watched as the Premium Plus, Super-Platinum, Executive, Extra Special Awesome with a service of Fancy on top single travelers boarded ahead, their suitcases all square and nice and neat, their neck pillows ready, while we held sleeping, tired, melting children who had been in an airport for five hours, wrestled strollers and car seats and then tried to get them on board amid the rest of the cattle call. Again, people, this is to make it easier for ALL of us. It isn't entitlement, as I so often hear.

Surprising to hear the hostility towards traveling families. I look at air travel as public transportaiton, not a visit to a library or private dining room. I guess the hgih airfares have created an elevated level of expectations combined with less civility and patience, not a winning combinaiton. I do travel with earplugs because they can reduce irritating noice to white noise.

Yes.

I don't condone what Slater did, but I can empathize with him and all others who work with the public. Watch what goes on at an airport, in restaurants, retail stores, and you'll see the self important, entitled, arrogant jerks of the world abuse and take out their every frustration on the captive employees whose job it is to serve the public. I used to work in public accounting, and was often the brunt of a client's bad day, or slow business. And since I was a staff person, not the partner in charge of the account, they thought it was okay, like the monthly fees entitled them to abuse me. One manager used to say, they can't kick their wife, dog or kid, so they come here and kick you. The next time you fly, observe how other people flying treat the FAs, and then ask yourself if you'd like to do your job with people cursing, complaining and taking out their frustrations on you EVERY.DAY.ALL.DAY.OF.YOUR.WORKDAY.

I get it. That's why I will admit being a total fan of what Slater did...for a while. It was funny, at first. And whether it's waitressing and having people yell at me for an awful omelette or being a reporter and having people sream at me to my face, threaten me, point a gun at me or stalk me, I (like many of us) can sympathize with the "take this job and shove it) move. But most of us are grownups and we don't deploy the slide, no matter how cool it would be. 

I read through the transcript of yesterday's chat with 2 airline attendants. In it, they said that they are not paid during boarding and deplaning, even though they are required to show up an hour before board. Their clock doesn't start until after everyone is seated and the doors close. So while they shouldn't be rude, apparently it isn't actually part of their job to help you with your luggage, kids, etc. It's a ridiculous situation (they should be paid for ALL their time), but hearing that, I can understand more about why you have been treated the way you were.

You are right, it is totally insane that airlines won't pay for that part of the flight. Outrageous. That should change, without a doubt. I mean, if they think it's OK to a la carte all your charges (baggage, food, pillows--which I actually think is OK and smart), they can't turn around and cut a flight attendants pay according to the hours they want to pay them. Having said that, they probably want the flight to go smoothly, and the flight going smoothly means everyone gets in their places with a minimum of problems.

I own noise canceling ear phones. You can get decent ones for about $50. If you travel frequently by air, own a computer and have time to be on this chat, that means you can afford these headphones. No excuses. You're sitting on a plane with jet engines blaring. It's not that quiet on those things by any stretch of the imagination, and people bellyache about a crying baby? One commenter said the worst thing about flying is the public, and that's so true. And the reason for that is because everyone thinks it's their own personal plane while at the same time acting like everyone else are stowaways.

I love this response. You're right, there are many ways to annoy one another, fellow humans. Have you ever suffered cologne abuse? I'll never forget the flight next to a man who must've bathed in it. Guess I should've carried nose plugs?

Sorry to keep beating a horse on the subject, but I remember when I didn't have kids, how annoyed I was and how judgmental I got. Now with 4 kids and terrible airline experiences, I have often found that the only people who seem to give me a hard time are those who don't have kids. The other parents, grandparents, and even flight attendants who are parents, have always given a hand or a sympathetic look. My bottom line is that you just don't get it until you have kids. Your mother got dirty looks about your behavior all the time-just ask her.

Woo-hoo!!!!

I now issue a blanket apology to all the mothers I didn't understand all those years. And likewise, a deep-felt thank you to all those people who now forget my youthful glances and help me when I'm near tears.

I wait as long as possible before boarding a plane. I've been on them before. The seats are much smaller than the seats in the waiting area. Why do people want to sit in those seats any longer than they have to? Why stand in a line that moves slowly, when I can sit and watch them or CNN and wait until the line's almost gone? I'm pretty sure the plane doesn't leave when you sit down. In fact, it never does. Also, the seats are all assigned anyway. It's not like someone's going to take it. Does air travel do something to people's common sense?

But have you noticed that has changed in the past few years? I swear, I never remember people rushing the gate, standing like rows of sentinels--or zombies--, ready to pounce once their zone is called? I don't remember it being like this 10 years ago, but it feels like that now.  You've gotta swim through the sea of  Zone 3s if you're a Zone 2 and didn't line up 15 minutes before boarding. Perhaps all of this is about the race for space in the overhead bins?

"Air travel is not a luxury, reserved for the jet set a la 1960s pretty suits, fancy flight attendant uniforms and linen napkins. It is transport. Period." And because it is transport, you have the right to expect the same level of service, kindness, and assistance that you get from a Metro bus driver.

Ha!

Are there bus attendants paid to make sure you obey the rules and are comfortable on the bus?

Actually, I'm a big fan of most of our Metro bus drivers. They are usually really patient and helpful with lost folks, I see it all the time.

Okay, clearly Mr. Slater can be credited for bringing 3 larger issues to light (in order of their scope): 1) People on both sides of the "flying with children" situation are not having their needs met by the airlines (but according to yesterday's chat with the 2 flight attendants, they do not start to get paid until that plane door is closed); 2) Flying today is almost not worth the trouble, but unfortunately you sometimes must and it's miserable for both sides in this equation 3) (and this is the largest): People sympathized with Mr. Slater because in today's economy, you have to do the work that 2-3 people used to do, get no support from upper management, and are basically given the attitude that you're lucky to have that job.

Very, very well said. Thank you!

Hey. I don't have kids and I'm sympathetic. I resent the suggestion that only parents can understand. Some of us are grown-up enough to develop empathy without having to have every experience ourselves. I have no kids, probably never will - and I *know* I would have a miserable time trying to wrangle a toddler on a flying machine.

Point taken. You are a rare bird. And a gem.

All flight crews on all U.S. carriers are under tremendous pressure. And their jobs are at risk. And they are paid minimally. And as bad as it is, it all fails to justify their attitude and behavior, which exhibits contempt towards and retaliation against passengers. A few years ago, I was on a D.C. - N.Y. shuttle (never ever again; now, always Acela). The plane sat on the runway. The flight attendant refused to advise what was going on, and in response to a quiet, innocent inquiry, made loud, condescending and hostile remarks. The flight took off and landed 2 hours late; I missed my meeting. As the passengers lined up to disembark in N.Y., the flight attendant pointed me out to the pilot, who declared "sir, there's no reason for you to be rude to our flight crew; they're here for your safety." I told the pilot what actually happened, and then informed him that I had already missed the meeting to which I was traveling, and that the purpose of the meeting was to bail out his pension fund, which was now not going to happen. Yes, a true story.

Yes, many of us are doing 2 or 3 times the workload and getting paid no more. That is wrong. But you are right -- humanity and civility should not be lost on us.

Count me as one who is horrified that people are lionizing this jerk. Getting mad at getting hit by a piece of luggage is one thing, but storming off your job in an unsafe and expensive manner (those chutes cost money) and leaving your colleagues to clean up after you is unforgivable. I hope to goodness he's prosecuted and JetBlue refuses to hire him back.

And now passengers on that plane are saying that he was never even hit with a suitcase, that he was injured before he got on the plane that day in an unrelated incident. This tell us all that stories are never quite what they appear at first, right?

It is harder than ever even for a couple to get seats together. Believe me. This is a new and increasing problem., and the airlines are not helpful.

Yes, the empowerment to get your own seats isn't always healthy, or even possible, eh?

Just got through reading your column today -- I agree completely, and have been dismayed by the level of support Slater has gotten in the blogs. Yes, passengers can be jerks, and that has to be frustrating for the flight attendants. Yes, they are relatively underpaid and overworked. But I really can't think of any other type of business that permits the kind of standard mistreatment of clients that the airline industry does. It's not just treating families with kids badly -- lots of the rude flight attendants are equal opportunity. Yes, there are times that there's a safety or security regulation that they have to enforce and the passenger isn't compliant, but if they're been rude before, I think passengers are even less willing to comply.

Yes, we go back to the basic issue of civility in the workforce. Airlines demand an awful lot of us. So, anyone who actually gets on a plane has already met an ASTOUNDING array of requirements, taken their shoes, belts, jackets off, plastic baggied our stuff, paid extra, arrived two hours early, strip-searched, threw out our snow globes and extra Red Bulls...we have done A LOT to hold up our end of the bargain on something we PAID to do. Can we get just a little in return from folks who are paid, albeit poorly, to be there?

The problem with air travel is that it has become increasingly stressful. From the mystery game of finding the true price of a ticket (it's more expensive to fly 200 miles than it is to fly cross country?); to the ever changing, ever open for interpretation security rules; to the cacaphony of noise in the terminal from multiple gate announcements, a TV set to CNN way too loud and nonstop reminders about security from a computerized voice; getting onto a plane with minimal space for any passenger taller than 4'10"; overhead bins crammed full of luggage that should be booked under the plane but aren't due to surcharges (remember these are temporary surchages imposed by the increase of jet fuel, at least that's how they were sold); to minimal service in the air with no food, one small beverage, poor if any in-flight entertainment; all in a massively overcrowded, poorly cleaned aircraft. I'm suprised more people don't start screaminig and yelling, let alone their children being upset by this.

Bottom line is, whether you loved Slater or not, we probably all wanted to get on that chute at one point, right? There are so many more questions and comments, but I'm sorry we ran out of time, folks. Thanks so much for dropping by today, see you in the air. I'll be the one doing the (quiet) puppet show in aisle 25.

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Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.
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