Once you get past the viral thrill of rehashing Steven Slater’s “bailout” from a career as a flight attendant that he could no longer stand to hold, the debate – to the degree that any debate is required at all – quickly gets to the question of who was more wrong?
Was it Slater, who cursed at his passengers, deployed the emergency slide on the Jet Blue plane to which he was assigned, and (worst) stole two cans of beer before escaping?
Or was it a still-unnamed woman passenger, whom he accuses of berating him and hitting him in the head with either the door of an overhead compartment or one of the bags in that compartment?
How about this third option: It’s the airlines.
They have to accept responsibility for helping to turn passengers into snarling beasts with overbooked flights, endlessly punitive fees, optimized fares that make no sense to consumers, and a practice of setting flight schedules that they can’t possibly maintain. Then they exacerbate the effect of all these insults by bombarding us with irreconcilable advertising campaigns to convince us how much we’re going to love the experience.
Further, they have to accept responsibility for their role turning flight attendants and other customer-facing personnel into recalcitrant and uncaring bureaucrats. The tools? Serial layoffs, confrontational union negotiations, low pay and a general disregard for their value. (When stranded near Chicago O’Hare during the 9/11 crisis, I met a dozen flight attendants from a handful of airlines – all of whom told me the hotel and meals were on their own dime during the unscheduled grounding.)
I’ve flown enough to know the truth of the matter. Some passengers, maybe even many, are simply boors who shouldn’t be out in public. And some flight attendants should probably find another line of work before they give their next safety briefing.
But for the rest of us, the airlines need to shape up. I can only imagine how complex and difficult it is to operate in this industry. Executives throughout the industry make incremental decisions that help the bottom line, and they are skilled at justifying why these decisions are in the long-term best interest of the customers.
But it’s simply not the case; there is no justification for selling a ticket and then notifying the passenger a day later that the flight is overbooked and an extra $25 will guarantee he isn’t bumped (this has happened to me a handful of times).
It’s simple really: Each airline needs to figure out a way to make money while treating passengers and employees like something other than refugees and wardens, respectively.