A recent headline on the ABC News website asked the question: "Steve Slater: Criminal or Folk Hero?" One wonders if ABC is perhaps outsourcing its headline writing to India, because anyone who knows anything about America knows that, in this country, you can be both.
In case you're not familiar, Steven Slater is (or was) a flight attendant for the airline JetBlue who became a media sensation after an encounter with an unruly passenger.
According to published reports, the passenger, who before takeoff had been involved in a near fistfight with another traveler over space in the overhead bins, continued to behave badly when the plane landed in New York. She was up before the plane came to a stop, yanking her suitcase out of the bin. When Slater tried to stop her, she cursed him and struck him on the head with the luggage (whether deliberately or inadvertently is not clear).
At this point, Slater had had enough. He got on the plane's intercom and delivered the following soliloquy: "To the (bad word) who called me a (bad word) and told me to (bad word) off: (bad word) you! I've been in the business 28 (bad word) years. That's it. I'm done."
Then Slater popped the emergency slide, grabbed a couple of beers from the airplane fridge, slid out of the plane, walked to his car, drove home - and immediately passed into legend.
You might expect that the consensus would be that this was another example of arrogant and rude flight attendants throwing their weight around. But for some reason (perhaps the flamboyance of his exit), Slater became a symbol for all of the people who've had to deal with a rude and unreasonable public.
Bloggers and commenters hailed him as a hero. Folk singer Jonathan Mann even released a YouTube video called the "Ballad of Steven Slater." "Every day in a million ways," one of the verses goes, "he was subjected to the worst kind of impotent rage, like a bubble about to burst." (The chorus incorporates Steven's uncensored rant in its entirety, so you may not want to watch it at work.)
Many who commented told their own tales of having to deal with cranky, unreasonable and downright insane customers. Having worked in a variety of public-contact jobs, I can certainly say I have some sympathy for them, for Steve Slater, and for anyone who's wanted to say, in the words of the old Johnny Paycheck chart-topper, "Take This Job and Shove It."
It should be noted, however, that we really don't know much about the passenger's story. Don't get me wrong, she behaved abominably, and nothing justifies hitting someone on the head with a loaded bag, but it's possible she was under some stress, too.
Has anyone considered that perhaps she was trying very hard to make a connection that the airline had put in jeopardy because the freaking plane sat on the tarmac for an hour and a freaking half before takeoff and her connecting flight left in 10 minutes and the stupid airline put that flight at a gate that was a 15-minute walk and a freaking train ride away?
(Why, yes, I have flown through Atlanta recently, why do you ask?)
Again, nothing justifies the passenger's behavior. We should all try to remember that whatever stress the airline is putting everyone through, it's (usually) not the flight attendant's fault. But anyone who's flown the unfriendly skies in the past few years understands a little about "impotent rage" from the passenger's perspective too.
The thing about outlaws, though, is that, well, they did break the law. Slater was arrested at home (by a SWAT team, no less), and charged with criminal mischief, -reckless endangerment and trespassing. (I guess the last charge is because you're not allowed on the slide absent an emergency.)
The passenger who struck him was apparently not charged. But the people who shrink the seats more and more so as to cram passengers in like cattle, the people who are charging an outrageous fee to check luggage which they then lose, the people who make sure that wherever you go, you first have to go 400 miles in the opposite direction and have to stress over connecting with the flight that actually goes to your destination (see above) no one's even talking about putting them on trial.
Maybe if we did, there'd be a little less "air rage" from both sides.