Tarmac tantrum causes workplace stir

Posted Aug. 13, 2010, at 7:51 p.m.

It’s not difficult to see why veteran JetBlue Airways flight attendant Steven Slater became an instant cult hero with working stiffs in customer service jobs after he experienced a spectacular flameout after a landing at New York’s Kennedy Airport on Monday. In their eyes, the 38-year old airline employee did the sort of spur-of-the-moment thing they may have considered doing when dealing with a particularly abusive customer.

According to The Associated Press, prosecutors said Slater snapped over an argument with a combative female passenger on Monday. He cursed over the plane’s intercom, then opened an exit hatch, deployed the aircraft’s emergency slide, grabbed a beer from the galley and — after announcing to a rapt audience, “I’ve had it” — made a grand exit down the slide and onto the tarmac.

Grim-faced authorities — showing zero tolerance for such an unorthodox style of customer service — hauled Slater into court, where he was arraigned on charges of criminal mischief and reckless endangerment that carry a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. A JetBlue spokesman said Slater had been suspended, pending an investigation of the incident.

Most rational people realize that what Slater did was inexcusable, no matter how satisfying it may have seemed at the moment. Nonetheless, the meltdown elevated him to instant, if temporary, international folk-hero status for having the courage of his convictions to go out in a blaze of ingloriousness, the likes of which you rarely see these days.

According to The AP, by early Tuesday afternoon more than 20,000 people had declared themselves supporters of Slater on Facebook, and the number was growing by the thousands with each passing hour. Predictably, “Free Slater” T-shirts went on sale, and a legal defense fund was set up for him. Bloggers and tabloid newspapers went nuts with the story, and informal polls showed that in the minds of workaday wage earners the frustrated flight attendant was more hero than villain.

“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of support for a flight attendant,” said a spokesman for Airfarewatchdog.com. A spokesman for the flight attendants’ union said the strong response from the public may be attributed, in part, to the airlines packing to capacity a reduced number of flights. Customers who have been stuck on full, hot planes and who regularly experience many of the other inconveniences now associated with flying can empathize with the stressed-out attendants, he said.

Psychologists and psychiatrists took to cable television shows to analyze Slater’s behavior and to warn that more such workplace displays can be expected in a time of high unemployment, when those fortunate enough to hold even a low-paying, dead-end job they hate are constantly dealing with a sense of job insecurity and frustration.

Many may want to quit their jobs, but can’t because of economic conditions, said one analyst. They feel cornered, and the rage begins to build, she suggested. Before long, they snap and take it out on fellow employees in a workplace fistfight, or something far more deadly, serious and tragic.

The tragedies make front-page and prime-time headlines. Few of the minor job site altercations make the news, but enough of them do to suggest that the hypothesis about a growing public rage may have merit: The assault on a fast-food establishment employee by an irate customer at the takeout window; the hammer attack on a customer by an employee of a cable television company; the punch in the mouth delivered by a customer to an employee of an electronics firm in a dispute over the firm’s return policy. Check your local newspaper for listings.

Slater’s performance above and beyond the call of duty was the sort of display songwriter-singer David Allan Coe may have had in mind when he wrote “Take This Job and Shove It,” popularized by the late country singer Johnny Paycheck. His temper tantrum is vaguely reminiscent of the scene in the 1976 movie “Network,” in which audacious newscaster Howard Beale — fed up with a country seemingly spiraling into anarchy — urges citizens to go to a window, stick out their heads, and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

After experiencing his allotted 15 minutes of fame, Slater may be pounding the pavement in search of a job. If he should find one, I’m guessing it probably won’t be in customer relations.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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