The not-so Friendly Skies

Posted Aug. 12, 2010, at 6:14 p.m.

Steven Slater went from underappreciated flight attendant to folk hero with his evacuation slide, beers-in-hand exit from his airline career. Many airline passengers cheered Mr. Slater’s dramatic exit, citing the rude behavior of their peers. Air travel isn’t likely to return to its glory days when steak dinners were served in coach class and people dressed up for their trips. But it is worth looking at how flying became so miserable, to see if there are ways to improve the experience for the sanity and safety of passengers and flight crews.

Mr. Slater sprang into the limelight Tuesday when news of his exit spread. According to media reports, the JetBlue flight attendant became enraged after a dispute with a passenger over overhead luggage on a flight from Pittsburgh to New York City. At some point, Mr. Slater was hit in the head with a bag and asked for an apology, according to news reports. He was cursed at instead.

Mr. Slater used the plane’s public address system to tell passengers, in an expletive-laced rant, that he’d had enough of their obnoxious behavior. He then activated an emergency exit slide, grabbed beer from the galley and slid off the plane. He was arrested hours later at his seaside home, charged with reckless endangerment and criminal mischief.

Ever since, the Internet has been abuzz with tales of airplane rudeness. Some shared stories of obnoxious and snotty flight attendants, but mostly the chatter is about how self-absorbed and thoughtless passengers can be.

What happened? For one, despite complaints to the contrary, flying got cheap. Cross-country flights that once topped $1,000 can be bought for $300. This democratization of air travel is largely positive, but with more people traveling and airlines now trying to boost profits by flying fewer planes, flights are crammed. Airlines have also cut service such as meals and snacks, and began charging for bags, food and legroom.

Add to this increased restrictions after the 9-11 terrorist attacks — who isn’t cranky after removing their shoes, emptying their pockets and disassembling their laptop well before reaching the departure gate?

A fundamental problem is lack of control. Further, many people fear flying and turn to pills and alcohol for relief from anxiety, which can lead to erratic behavior.

The solutions — such as higher ticket prices so airlines can pay their flight attendants more and offer better service — aren’t likely to be well received. But neither are 800-mile car trips.

So we’ll have to find a way to get along.

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