He didn’t do the right thing, but I get it.
Steven Slater, a Jet Blue flight attendant, cursed passengers over an airplane’s public address system before grabbing a few beers, yanking open one of the plane’s emergency doors and hurling himself down an emergency chute onto the tarmac in New York’s JFK airport.
I’ve been there, man. I flight attended for three years, and I don’t know a single flight attendant who didn’t occasionally fantasize about bailing in just such a Steven-Slater blaze of glory.
And that it happened in JFK – well, for anyone who has worked in the industry, that’s no surprise, either.
The airport is legendary for its tarmac delays. I rarely left the airplane for a jaunt inside when I flew into that airport. It’s an international gateway, which means lots of huge planes with passengers from every corner of the globe are packed into the airport. I have an ethnic appearance, so a stroll through JFK for me, meant being cornered by folks of varying nationalities as they asked me questions in languages I didn’t understand.
Once I detangled from the United-Nations-like throng of confused passengers, a soda in that airport costs more than an hour’s wages. A slice of pizza cost as much as a mortgage payment in the remote parts of Arkansas, and finding a bathroom without a line worthy of Walt Disney World was an adventure.
And then there was the actual job. Flight attending was always challenging, but following Sept. 11, it became even more so. The litany of rules flight attendants are federally required to enforce is daunting and changes on an almost daily basis.
At certain times, standing in an airplane cabin within 30 minutes of certain airports was prohibited, but trying to coax passengers back into their seats during a long flight was a challenge – especially knowing that once you hit the tarmac in a place like JFK, there may be an hours-long wait for a gate.
One memorable trip to JFK, the restroom on my aircraft was out of order. The plane was destined for a short jaunt from Indianapolis to New York City.
Unfortunately, the bathroom – this plane only had one – was mechanically unfit for use.
Flight attendants get very little say about whether an aircraft flies. For certain mechanical problems – like a faulty toilet – the captain can make the call. On this night, the captain decided we’d make the two-hour jaunt to New York without a bathroom. Mechanics boarded the plane and virtually wired the plane’s restroom door shut.
I deplaned to make a half dozen announcements that the aircraft’s lavratory was out of commission. Please use the restroom here in the terminal, I told passengers at our gate – repeatedly.
Not everyone listened. Within an hour, several tipsy and unruly passengers were demanding to use the bathroom. I knew the super secret way in which the mechanics had created a bathroom lockdown, and I called the cockpit to beg the captain to allow the unrulies to relieve themselves. Yes, I knew the toilet wouldn’t flush, but please, I pleaded.
Jokingly, the captain told me the men were welcome to use empty water bottles, because opening the restroom door was a no-go option.
With a laugh, I related the same to the passengers in question. They took me up on the offer, and things got out of hand. Before I knew it, the galley had been cleared and the curtains drawn as passengers relieved themselves in plastic water bottles.
I was fuming that somehow I’d become the curtain holder on a makeshift inflight bathroom, but I held the door and passed out water bottles. I requested that passengers making use of their water bottles, double bag their relief and take it with them off the aircraft.
At the time, I was really angry. Today, it’s one of a million airline war stories I tell at parties. Every flight attendant can tell similar tales that garner a laugh and we all have stories about passengers we’d still like to shake if given the chance.
I would never have pulled a Steven Slater as much as I get it. Most of the traveling people are kind faces with places to go and people to see, and they don’t deserve the delays and hassles that surely followed Slater’s glorious resignation.
But Slater now has a story to tell, and one that every airline industry employee secretly daydreams of doing.
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