Flight Attendant Stress: Keeping Cool on the Plane

Flight attendants are the human face of airlines and often deliver bad news.

Aug. 18, 2010 — -- 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.

And if you think Slater is the only person who is said to have used an emergency slide in frustration, you'd be wrong there, too. A passenger pulled the same stunt just last year, apparently because the pilot was taking too long to get his aircraft to the gate.

The Joy of Flying: JetBlue Case Hardly the First

I've written before about cases of passengers over-indulging in alcohol so no need for a rehash here, but yes, there have also been a few instances where crew members allegedly did the same (but were stopped before they flew).

So flying today can be a pain in the posterior, but bad behavior only makes it worse. We're all in this together, so let's not take it out on each other, okay? Our anonymous flight attendant sounded as if venting to us made her feel a little better; that's one way to ease stress.

Or you could hang out with a gorilla, like Safkow ("magical times," as he calls it).

Or maybe you could de-stress by blogging. Safkow does that too under the witty nom de plume of Martha Stewardess. "Martha" recently suggested a new reality show for the beleaguered JetBlue flight attendant ("Slippery Sliding Steven Slater vs. JetBlue Foul Mouthed Bag Lady, forced to live together, handcuffed, 24/7, on a barge, no food and only beer to drink").

Sometimes, that's all you can do -- play it for laughs.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.