How NOT to handle a Situation

The story of the day yesterday was that Steven Slater, a flight attendant with JetBlue, wigged out on the tail-end of a flight from Pittsburgh to New York’s JFK.  He said that he’d had it, cursed at passengers and quit over the PA system before grabbing a beer, deploying the emergency chute, and sliding away from everything he had worked for.

I am glad that this story got some attention because so often it is the ill-behaved passengers who are highlighted.  What do these poorly behaved passengers and Mr. Slater have in common?  Firstly they all belong in jail; secondly they should not be allowed to profit, advance, or benefit in any way from their behaviour.

Depending on who we are to believe, Mr. Slater was angry with a passenger or possibly with a number of passengers who either disobeyed his instruction to stay in their seats until the Fasten Seatbelt sign was off, or was yelling at him because the bag that he had insisted they gate-check was not immediately available to them.  By most accounts somehow Mr. Slater was conked on the noggin with a piece of carry-on, probably accidentally.  To put things in perspective, I don’t care what happened.    I am a very frequent flier, and know that I have to comport myself a certain way when I am on the airplane.  I know that some of their regulations are stupid, but I abide by them because it is a federal offense not to.  Let me say that again: It is made quite clear to us that not complying with the instructions of the cabin crew is a federal offense. That is why my smartphone remains off until we are on the ground; that is why I leave my seatbelt on when I am in my seat (well, mostly); that is why I remove my headset on take-off and landing; that is (only one of the many) reasons I do not smoke on the airplane or tamper with the smoke detectors in the lavatory; and yes, that is why I remain seated until the fasten seatbelts sign is off.  The crew on board the airplane has the authority of law, and failure to comply with them can result in being escorted off the plane by federal marshals (or in Canada someone else… not quite sure who).

So by all accounts a passenger or passengers misbehaved, probably mouthed off at the FA, and possibly (though likely accidentally) caused a piece of carry-on to hit the FA on the head.  The Flight Attendant had a number of possible courses of action.  Which would you have taken?

  1. Let it roll off his back, do nothing, and write a blog about how terrible some passengers are (and for the record I read one or two of those from time to time, and commiserate with the FAs);
  2. Warn the passenger that failure to comply with his instructions would result in his being arrested and charged upon arrival (and indeed following through and having the plane met by Marshals); or
  3. Throw a hissy fit, quit, then burn your bridge – making you a star for a day and a (unemployed) criminal for the rest of your life?

Some people have given him points for style, and credit for ‘sticking it to the man’ or whatever protest he was trying to achieve.  The bottom line is that his behaviour, while spectacular, was neither heroic nor indicative of any real brain activity.  It is a scene that you would expect to see in a Hollywood movie demonstrating that the character was going through a mid-life crisis and simply needed a career change (Bill Murray’s character in the 1981 hit comedy Stripes demonstrates a similar breakdown in the opening scene where as a taxi driver he picks up a snooty woman (played by Fran Ryan) and starts driving erratically before stopping his car in the middle of a bridge, blocking all traffic, and throwing the keys into the river).  The only part that never makes it into the movies is that law enforcement are not impressed by grand gestures, only by law, and indeed are often forced into making an example of the guy whose grand gestures might cause others to follow in their footsteps.

There are many who have pointed out that the FA is now going to become a star, profiting from his celebrity status.  I only hope that the prosecutors enforce the law that makes it illegal for criminals to profit by telling their story.

The sad part of the story is that until he got onto the PA system, the FA was (by all tellings) completely in the right.  He did not do anything wrong, and even getting onto the PA system, cursing  and quitting, while stupid, would not have been a crime.  I am a great believer that when authority figures break the law their punishment should be harsher than when a civilian does, because not only is he breaking the law but he is also shirking his responsibility and betraying our trust.  Aboard that airplane it was Mr. Slater who was the authority, and in addition to being charged with mischief and endangering the public, it should be remembered that Mr. Slater was responsible for the safety of all of the passengers on board the plane, and when he deplaned (by illegal and expensive means) he abandoned that duty.

He’s had his fifteen minutes (and more, to be sure).  Let’s stop talking about him, not let him appear on talk shows, and let the next two headlines about him read: ‘Flight Attendant’s Trial Begins Today’ and ‘Slater Convicted on all Charges, to Spend XX Years in Sing Sing.’

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