As a flight attendant, I perform many different jobs on board airplanes: safety professional, drinks slinger, bottle warmer, dispute settler, iPod fixer — you name it. One of the more troublesome duties is that of complaint catcher. Passengers sometimes need to vent their anger or frustration, and while we often have little control over the problem that is vexing them, we are the smiling faces that get the brunt of these grievances.
In my 20 years in the cabin I’ve heard thousands of gripes about delays, cancellations and sundry inconveniences, but just when I think I’ve heard every possible complaint, a new one comes along that intrigues me. If it is completely ridiculous, I make a note of it. Here, then, is my list of the most outrageous in-flight complaints.
1. Early bird. Complaints about late arrivals are so common that I recite the canned response by rote: “I am sorry for your inconvenience. Please check with the gate agent or customer service representative for connection information …” But only twice have I had a passenger complain that the flight was arriving too early. What to say? Perhaps, “I am sure we will do better to delay you next time”?
2. The haunted skies. A middle-aged passenger who looked like she had never left the beatnik years confronted me before the flight to complain of “bad vibes.” She just didn’t have a good feeling about the flight, she said, and felt the airplane was haunted. I waited until we had landed to pass on that complaint to the cockpit.
3. Freedom of choice. Now that many airplanes have more than one video channel, I am getting the novel objection that there are too many choices. Seems some passengers are torn by indecision and others aren’t getting enough sleep because there is too much entertainment. Maybe they don’t know about the little button called the “Off” switch?
4. Skirting the issue. A middle-aged man cornered me in the galley and objected to the brevity of another flight attendant’s skirt. He said that every time the attractive crew member closed an overhead bin he got an eyeful. The gentleman was traveling with his wife and did not care to be turned on in such a manner. While I was somewhat surprised that he would mind — much less speak up — I suggested that, as a solution, he close his eyes or look elsewhere.
5. Mr. Narrator. On one of my flights, a pilot was so happy to have been upgraded to captain that he overdid the announcements, talking incessantly about the plane’s specifications, the flight and weather conditions, and every little detail about the cities and landmarks below. Finally, I had to break the news to the cockpit that more than a dozen passengers had asked if I could get the captain to shut up.
6. What a gas. While gassy passengers are certainly a nuisance, the source of the gas is often hard to pinpoint. One time, I was in first class in the company of a passenger with a major gas problem. It got so bad that many of the passengers put their earplugs in their nostrils. One of the flight attendants sniffed about until she located the culprit, whom she advised to use the lavatory when the next gas attack struck. She received an ovation and several commendation letters.
7. No, no, not the nose. A passenger complained that the person sitting next to her was constantly picking his nose and eating the extract. I was surprised to discover that this passenger was not a youngster but a middle-aged man in a three-piece suit. I confirmed that he was dining in the manner the lady had stated. See what happens when we take away the in-flight meal? Instead of confronting the gentleman, I gave the woman another seat.
8. The real thing. One woman vowed never to fly my airline again because we changed from Coke to Pepsi. Really, in these days of security risks and safety issues, does a can of soda really make that big a difference?
9. Funny man. When I worked for Pan Am, I received a commendation letter from a passenger for my sense of humor. He stated that he loved the way I joked around and made fun of the airline. Needless to say, those kind words went down in my personnel file as a complaint letter and I got a warning from my supervisor. It was the thought that counted, I guess.
10. Water landing. I occasionally get grumbles about the safety demonstration — someone doesn’t like the look of the video presenter or thinks the seat-belt information is stupidly self-evident — but I was surprised when an older passenger became irate after the safety demonstration. He didn’t speak English very well, but he had picked up on the part about the water landing and complained, vociferously, that he had not been forewarned that this flight would be landing in the water. His concern was that he didn’t know how to swim. It took a good 20 minutes to get him to understand that we fully intended to land on solid ground.
James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, “.” For more information about James, visit his Web site or send him an e-mail.