By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/12/2010 9:19:06 AM ET 2010-08-12T13:19:06

When JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater dramatically walked off the job — jumped actually — he became a poster boy for all that’s wrong with air travel today.

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“It’s no secret that the air travel experience — which includes the TSA experience, delays, cancellations — is not as comfortable as it could be,” said Geoff Freeman, the executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, which represents the American tourism industry. Research by the association suggests that 41 million people are avoiding air travel every year because of the so-called “hassle factor.”

Those hassles, from crowded planes to tightened security to fees for checked baggage, have made air travel an intolerably bad experience, which is why passengers are lashing out.

“Air travel has become like flying below Greyhound ... in the baggage compartment under the bus,” says Amy Alkon, author of the book “I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle to Beat Some Manners into Impolite Society.” “There are those who still find coach seats adequately roomy — mainly small-boned children under eight, and armless, legless midgets. Better hope you have one of the latter seated next to you, and not some 300-pound man who wordlessly annexes half of your seat like he's Germany and you're Poland.”

Many airline insiders say flight attendants get no respect, and Slater’s case is arguably a direct result of that. The passenger involved in the altercation apparently ignored the crew member’s instructions to sit down, which is a federal offense.

“I can tell you that part of the problem is that passengers sometimes take the job we do personally,” says Bobby Laurie, a San Francisco-based flight attendant. “Sometimes they think that us telling them to turn their phones off is a personal attack or annoyance. They don’t always understand that it’s our job, and a regulation that we have to follow.”

Discuss: What's the most bizarre thing you've witnessed while flying?

In Slater’s case, his take-this-job-and-shove-it moment appeared to resonate with many Americans, and the 38-year-old JetBlue flight attendant became an instant folk hero. By Wednesday, more than 120,000 people declared themselves supporters of Slater on Facebook, and the number was growing every hour. At least one fan set up a legal fund on his behalf.

"The response has been amazing and that's probably in part because those people have been stuck on a lot of full, hot planes in the last three months," said Thom McDaniel, a union president and flight attendant at Southwest Airlines for 18 years.

Flight attendants, who serve on the front lines of customer service and may put in 14- to 16-hour shifts, need respect from their employer, too.

Rob Waldman, a professional leadership speaker and bestselling author of “Never Fly Solo,” said Slater’s support network didn’t work. “He didn’t have a wingman,” he said. “His flight attendants weren’t there for him, JetBlue wasn’t there for him, and he had nobody to turn to and he reached his boiling point.” If he’d had more support, Waldman added, “this might have ended differently.”

Flying, by its very nature, is stressful, meaning it’s possible to remove all of the pain points identified by the experts — the fees, the hassles, the headaches — and still have a difficult flight. There are rough takeoffs, landings and turbulence. Anya Clowers, a nurse and travel expert, said Southwest’s tactic, which is to use a little humor to defuse a problematic situation, works well. “Laughter is a physical release of pent up airport security stress, boarding stress, and so forth,” she said. Even a good in-flight entertainment system (which JetBlue has) can keep passengers’ minds off the often harrowing experience of flying.”

“A little common courtesy would go a long way toward stopping all of this air rage,” said Cindy Richards, who writes a blog about family travel. “Ticket agents and gate attendants should be empowered to do whatever it takes to make travel easier for passengers. And — gasp — they should do it with a smile.” But it goes both ways, she added. Passengers also need to understand that airline workers are people, too. “They have bad days and need someone to cut them a little slack now and then.”

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Flying is unlike any other mode of transportation. You’re trapped in a pressurized aluminum tube for hours at a time. Passengers’ coping mechanisms include medication, such as sleep aids or other calming agents, and alcohol, said Katherine Muller, a therapist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “Some who white-knuckle the flight without drugs or alcohol may become so anxious that they may actually have a panic attack, which could involve obvious behavioral signs that may be disruptive,” she said. The goal should be preventing passengers and crewmembers from reaching that threshold.

Slater, meanwhile, could be in a heap of trouble. He has been charged with criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing, counts that carry a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Slater exited a Bronx lockup late Tuesday. Stephen Morello, a spokesman for the city's Department of Correction, didn't have details on who posted bail.

"He's not this type of individual at all," said Slater's former grandfather-in-law, Harry Niethamer. "He's always been a gentleman and he loves that job. He had opportunities to do other things but he always went back to that type of work and apparently was always good at it."

Slater is currently suspended from JetBlue pending a further investigation.

In a company blog posting, the airline poked fun at the attention directed at Slater. "Perhaps you heard a little story about one of our flight attendants?" the blog joked. Public comments on the blog overwhelmingly urged JetBlue to give Slater his job back.

The airline, which is based in the New York City borough of Queens, attracts passengers with ads that mock the often-uncomfortable and high-priced travel experience on other airlines.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

Video: Passenger: Slater was ‘rude’ before takeoff

  1. Closed captioning of: Passenger: Slater was ‘rude’ before takeoff

    >>> lauren was on that jetblue flight and had her own encounter with slater before it took off. i spoke with her earlier this morning.

    >> i didn't think anything was wrong until i saw him and he had a huge gash on his head, and it was a fresh wound, with obviously not dried blood, it was visibly wet. and you know, i thought everything was okay. i thought that it was a prior gash, but that it was still bleeding or whatever it may have been. and looked very disgruntled, and we were on a plane for about 15 minutes , so he had a good a bit amount of time to get settled in and to take care of his wound. and i asked for a clorox wipe or some type of cleaning supply that i could clean my seat with, because there was coffee spilled on it. and he rolled his eyes at me and asked me, what, you know, in a really rude way. and i explained to him, can i have a clorox wipe, and i pointed to the coffee that was spilled on the seat. and he said, not right now, honey, maybe when we get in the air. i have to take care of myself first.

    >> did he seem agitated to you at that point?

    >> he did seem agitated to me. and, you know, i just -- i just thought to myself that he's having a bad day , or this is the type of person he is. and he actually made me feel pretty uncomfortable whenever he had said that to me. i knew that i wasn't going to get anything to clean up the coffee with, so i just let it go after that point. and i actually thought for the remainder of the flight that he was slamming the overhead containers throughout the flight, i heard discussion with the other flight attendants , he was slamming doors behind the scene.

    >> well that gives us some perspective on his behavior during the flight. thank you so much, lauren, for talking to us this morning.

    >> sure.

    >> we appreciate it.

Chart: When friendly skies turn mean

Photos: Fed-up flight attendant

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