Flight Attendant Stress: Keeping Cool on the Plane

What's with all the yelling and screaming on airplanes these days? Yes, I'm talking about the alleged extreme bad behavior by JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater -- the cursing of a passenger, that dramatic exit down an emergency slide, beer in hand -- but I'm also talking about nutty passengers, too (and more on that coming up).

Flight attendant John Safkow knows all about the craziness; he's been flying professionally for 20 years (though he'd prefer not to name the airline he works for). According to Safkow, air travel today "can be a miserable experience for everyone."

As for the JetBlue incident, the flight attendant says it gives the public a glimpse of the cabin crew's reality. "I'm not saying that we're all ready to grab two beers and do the Slater Slide, but we all have our stressors and limits," Safkow said. "Some handle them better than others."

He suggests this kind of stress can only be cured with "balance" in one's life, and Safkow finds his balance by working with gorillas.

That's right, gorillas. Safkow has another job, working a few days a week at the Gorilla Foundation outside San Francisco, where one of his charges is 39-year-old Koko, the female ape famous for sign language.

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Wait -- a flight attendant and a gorilla? Sure. "You'd be surprised how soothing and relaxing caring for gorillas can be," Safkow said. "We'll play 'chase' or I might sing a song for Koko and she 'signs' that she's listening."

Hey, whatever works. Clearly, flight attendants and passengers need something to soothe them. As one anonymous flight attendant who works for American Airlines recently told me, part of the problem is that flight attendants today are the "human face" of the airlines and it often seems as if that face is forever saying "no."

Stress in the Skies: Flight Attendants vs. Airline Passengers

Face it, you book online, get boarding passes online, check bags online, and use automated kiosks. So the flight attendant may be your first personal contact, and, thanks to fees and cutbacks, that contact isn't always pleasant for either side. Our anonymous flight attendant says a typical exchange might go like this (and these are her words):

Passenger: "I'm hungry, what's for lunch?"

Flight attendant: "Junk food, for a price."

Passenger: "Never mind. How about a drink?"

Flight attendant: "Sure, that'll be $7."

Passenger: "Forget it. I'll just have a can of soda."

Flight attendant: "Sorry, we're only allowed to offer a cupful."

Passenger: "Can I get a magazine?"

Flight attendant: "No magazines."

Passenger: "Got any of those plastic wings for my kids?"

Flight attendant: "No."

Passenger: "Is there a movie?"

Flight attendant: "No."

Passenger: "Can I get up and stand in the galley to stretch?"

Flight attendant: "No. TSA rules."

"I really don't like saying 'no' to customers, but what choice do I have?" the American flight attendant went on. "I don't blame the passenger, or the flight attendant involved in the JetBlue incident. I blame the bean counters who have made travel miserable for all concerned."

"It's an oil and match situation," she said.

It is indeed, but if you think Slater's alleged bad behavior was a first, it wasn't. A Pinnacle Airlines spokesman told reporters back in February that the carrier had to cancel a flight because of an altercation -- yes, a fight -- between two flight attendants.

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