Saturday 20 January 2018

Go on, be nice to her

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Meltdowns don't come more spectacular than that of Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who last month quit his job by cursing passengers, grabbing a beer and deploying the escape chute.

After 27 years in the trade, Slater was apparently brought to breaking point after being hit in the head by an overhead bag and insulted by a belligerent passenger. He snapped in style, taking to the intercom to berate the passenger before exiting via the plane's emergency chute.

Shortly after leaving JFK Airport, Slater was arrested. But he was already a folk hero.

It's no secret that short-haul flying has gotten nasty. No-frills carriers have made air travel more democratic, but in making it lean they've also made it mean. And if you think it's bad for passengers (check-in fees, boarding scrums, expensive snacks, etc), spare a thought for the cabin crew.

Flight attendants do not work in corporate offices. They do not axe routes, hike baggage fees during school holidays or threaten to fit credit-card swipes to toilet doors. Yet they're the ones at the coalface of modern air travel, dealing with ruder customers than ever.

Recently, I was on a Virgin Atlantic flight that got delayed leaving Accra, Ghana. A cock-up at the airport left one too many bags on the plane, and the situation took more than three hours to resolve.

The crew played it by the book. The pilot made frequent announcements, explaining the security risk in the extra bag, and thanking us for our patience. Cabin staff distributed juice, apologised and made a reasonable effort to keep passengers informed and calm.

As the delay lengthened, however, it became clear that several of us would miss our onward connections. The atmosphere grew tetchy. A mother started shouting about her "starving" children.

Clearly, the situation wasn't the cabin crew's fault. But because they were the ones in uniform, they got it in the neck. After a couple of hours, several began snapping back at passengers, culminating in an outright row with a woman who was demanding an individual meal that would have delayed the plane still further, pushing the staff over their duty time limits.

Luckily, the baggage problem was resolved before it became a crowd-control problem. But I dread to think what would have happened in a genuine emergency.

This isn't to say that flight attendants need to be mollycoddled. They know what they signed up for, they're trained for most situations that arise and, as industrial disputes in Aer Lingus demonstrate, they're well able to fight their corner. And the bottom line? They have a job.

But think about the nitty-gritty of short-haul flights. Flight attendants perform widely ignored safety demonstrations. They cram heavy chunks of carry-on baggage into overcrowded bins. They sell raffle tickets, tell grown adults to fasten seatbelts and switch off phones, and are first in the line of fire when passengers get drunk, irate or fall ill -- all in a metal tube at 35,000 feet.

Working as a flight attendant used to be one of the most glamorous careers going. Now, it's about being a jack-of-all-trades on a flying bus. And for this, junior cabin crew earn from as little as €1,200 a month (after tax) on no-frills airlines, according to recruitment agency, Crewlink.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing worse than curt, disengaged or rude flight attendants. But how can over-worked cabin staff offer customer service without an incentive? Or without passengers at least treating them as human beings? Give 'em a break. Or Steven Slater won't be the last to deploy the emergency chute.

Irish Independent

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