Unfriendly Skies

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In the latest episode of Sky Wars, an American Airlines flight attendant got belligerent with the mother of a toddler, wresting a stroller away from the woman and hitting her child in the process. This incident follows on the heels of the disgraceful United Airlines debacle, wherein a paying customer was seriously injured while being dragged off a plane. These days, the fear of a terrorist commandeering an aircraft has been dwarfed by  fear of the very airline employees who are supposed to keep us safe.

To be fair, being a flight attendant has become one of the less glamorous jobs in the world. In ever more cramped quarters, these airline personnel are expected to see to the needs of about 200 travelers, all the while making sure everyone is safe. And in fact, most altercations on airplanes are between passengers, not between customers and crew. So add to the flight attendant job description the need to be airplane referee, cabin librarian shushing loud passengers, and ersatz bartender cutting off belligerent drunks.

Air travel used to be a glamorous luxury. Passengers would be treated to full meals served by smartly dressed flight attendants in roomy airplane cabins. Travelers never felt the need to board a plane with more than a briefcase or handbag in tow. Unfortunately, this more civilized travel experience was costly, and few normal people could afford to fly.

As airlines stepped up the competition, ticket prices came down and inconveniences went up. Many of the formerly complimentary perks of flying have been removed. Now most airlines charge for checked bags and in-flight entertainment, for instance. And meal service for anyone not traveling in first class is nonexistent. Meanwhile, in desperate measures to cut costs, airlines keep squeezing in more seats, leaving less aisle space and leg room for already disgruntled passengers.

All of this is a recipe for disaster. With more passengers per square inch and everyone dragging aboard roller bags to avoid baggage fees, the potential for conflict and flight attendant fatigue has gone way up. On a recent flight, I witnessed a passenger holding up the boarding process for a good 20 minutes as he stood in the aisle trying to find space in the overhead bins for his oversized bag – all the while manhandling other passengers’ luggage and generally causing a ruckus. The Southwest flight attendants deserve awards for patience in dealing with this guy in a courteous and helpful manner.

The other reason for short tempers on the part of passengers is that, prior to boarding,  they have just suffered the hassle and indignity of having themselves and their possessions searched by TSA agents in this post-9/11 world. I myself have had my hands test positive for gun or explosives residue and been physically searched and manhandled at security. Whenever my husband gets a pat down, the TSA agent asks him if there are any sensitive parts on his body. He always answers, “Just my genitals.” The agent never finds that amusing.

The litany of travel woes in the world of flying is long: endless lines at security, tiny and cramped airplane cabins, overbooking situations, passengers eating smelly foods brought from home, minuscule airplane bathrooms that smell like the sewage plant, all manner of animals on board, babies crying, passengers watching shows on their laptops at deafening volumes, surly airline personnel.

Still, a method of transportation that can get an American from one coast to the other in less than 6 hours is nothing to sneeze at. It sure beats a tedious train trip or crowded bus ride – or a cross country family car trip with incessant potty stops and whining, “Are we there yet?”

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