Jet blues

Now that the JetBlue/Steven Slater incident is almost a week behind us, the fact that the echo chamber of the internet has turned Slater into a folk hero is starting to look like yet another example of social media lynch mobs getting it wrong. As passengers tell their stories it looks like Slater, a seasoned and well liked flight attendant hit his head before the flight boarded suffering a mild concussion which affected everything that happened during the flight and after it landed. That may not be correct either but it’s probably closer to what happened than what’s being churned up on Facebook.

It seems that the social internet is hungry for any story that could help vent the anger building up in the US and it’s been fascinating to watch the telephoning of this story smooth out rough edges much like what happened in the Crowley/Gates arrest controversy.

Even if the story as it’s been passed around is true I think we have to be extremely careful about making folks like Slater and Crowley folk heros even though it’s easy to do so given how rude some passengers and some Harvard professors can be. No doubt this incident isn’t the best one to become the “poster incident” for unruly passengers, unruly flight attendants, populist rage or anything besides the fact that it has become a drag to fly and that increases the social friction points in the cabin.

I used to fly a lot and continue to fly more often than most and aspects of this story having to do with the process of flying caught my attention. Even though the real story will probably demonstrate that most of us probably got it wrong and hanged the wrong person, as a frequent flier I can’t help thinking that it’s worth considering the many ways the process of flying is the perfect petri dish for situations like we thought this one was.

People attempt to take too much big luggage on planes and struggle to stuff it in overheads. This was happening before airlines went bankrupt and started charging passengers to check bags but now with that charge more people are stuffing everything into one bag and attempting to stuff it into the overhead bin whether it fits or not. This makes the boarding process less than pleasant everyone, especially the person with the bag that won’t fit.

A few non-frequent fliers don’t check bags because of fears about lost bags. Bar coding baggage tags has all but eliminated that. It happens but it’s rare.

Frequent fliers don’t check bags because it gets them through the now-arduous process of checking in and exiting the airport faster (see Up in the Air).

As the now questionable story went, when the passenger initially had problems getting her bag in the overhead bin and hit Slater in the head with the door he probably should have pulled the bag off the plane and checked it, and if the passenger went ballistic he should have pulled her too. He had the power to do that and if he didn’t, the captain did. There are times when high maintenance passengers get too worked up and need to be pulled out for the sake of the other passengers, so the crew can do their jobs, and so the flight can leave on time.

I check a bag when I fly and because I fly a lot (I have a bit of status on United) I don’t pay. This makes traveling a lot easier for me. The simple solution is to get bags out of the cabin and one way to help this is to stop charging for baggage and enforce carry on rules more strictly.

It may be that the stress of flying these days can make anyone ruder than they might be otherwise but it seems to me, even outside of flying that people are ruder now than they used to be. When you coop up a few hundred people and too few flight attendants in a plane for an hour or more and serve them crap food, you’re no doubt creating a situation where everyone should be working a little harder to make things work more smoothly: passengers, flight attendants, and the flight crew. This doesn’t always happen. Some are resentful that flying has become a less than fun experience and feel entitled to vent a little at the nearest representative of the airline industry: the flight attendant. But, of course, this does no one any good, including the venter.

Following Rules and Instructions
I was on a flight to Miami once and as the plane was on final approach, long after everyone was supposed to be sitting down and buckled in (the attendants had already made their check) a passenger got up and opened the overhead bin to quickly take out a cell phone. I watched as one of the flight attendants asked the passenger to sit down while the other alerted the pilot on the intercom. The plane abruptly pulled up and aborted the landing and went around again. This frightened passengers who had no idea what was happening. Had the airport been Atlanta or Chicago we might have had to circle for a while to get a new place in line to land. Needless to say that passenger got some dirty looks when the plane landed.

All it takes is one experience of serious turbulence to make almost any passenger a believer in keeping a seat belt on while sitting down. My guess is that few if any people would have been injured on the recent United flight that ran into heavy turbulence over Denver had they been wearing seat belts.

Maybe flight attendants who try to get through the rules and safety announcements quickly so as not to burden the passengers are partly to blame for this but many passengers don’t take flying seriously enough and when you couple this with rudeness you have a recipe for problems and at the very least, social friction as passengers don’t listen to flight attendants.

When a flight attendant says sit down, you sit down. When a flight attendant says turn off your cell phone and computer, turn them both off. Simple.

Class anger
As this now incorrect story went, a woman in first class had problems with her bag and that led to an argument with Slater. My guess is the first class piece of the story helped drive the folk hero status of Slater as the lowly service person battling the rich bitch.

But, whether or not this really happened, some flying in first class or business class feel they’ve paid for the right to be high maintenance and no doubt flight attendants have to absorb a lot of this. Couple that with the fact that airlines are struggling to stay in business and one of their important cash flows is people who fly frequently and buy more expensive seats and you have a recipe for at least a few of these people to get a sense of entitlement.

The internet is hungry for class issue situations and when it finds them it knocks the nuance out of them and turns them into black and white, good vs evil, David and Goliath stories. We saw it happen in the Crowley/Gates arrest controversy and we’ve seen it happen here.

Flying sucks
Put simply, the process of flying has sunk a very long way since the Pan Am “Clippers” wining and dining passengers across the Atlantic. It’s gotten even worse in the last ten years and it’s getting worse by the day. There are so many unpleasant pieces to the process of flying it’s difficult to even list them here but when you add it all up, I’d rather take a train if I have a choice. This no doubt makes life even harder for underpaid flight attendants who have to absorb all of the regular tension that comes from flying and now the additional negative energy that comes from the abysmal conditions we fly in.

And just to be clear, I don’t hold the 9/11 attacks responsible for this. Yes, the extra security is a drag but this problem is much bigger than that.

In the end, the piece of this story that bothers me the most is that the social internet, a space I hang out in daily, got it very wrong and might have hung the passenger before hearing all the evidence. Sort of reminds me of 12 Angry Men, a movie in which a jury gets it wrong and would have convicted a man of murder except for a single member (Henry Fonda) who digs deeper.

We need to dig a bit deeper before we pass judgement and even then, the judgement probably should be gentle given our propensity for getting it wrong.