Having been a former Pan Am flight attendant for 20 years, and a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst for almost 25 years, I have written several blogs about the subject of trauma in general, and trauma within the airline industry specifically. Now, after some of the smoke has cleared, I've decided to weigh in on the topic of the unusual aftermath of Steven Slater's dramatic "take this job and shove it" exit from his flight attendant career at JetBlue.
In Steven's wake, an amazing thing has been happening! I've been hearing reports from both flight attendant patients and flight attendant friends that many passengers are actually looking them straight in the eyes--for the first time in years--as if suddenly realizing that flight attendants are living, breathing human beings and not robotic automatons with no feelings.
Passengers are coming out from behind whatever technological devices they usually hide behind, and asking the flight attendants in a friendly way how they are and if they're having a good day. This is an interesting development. What is causing this seemingly empathic reaction on the part of passengers toward flight attendants? I've also been told by flight attendants that they, not surprisingly, are feeling more friendly toward passengers.
What's striking is that this friendliness never used to be unusual. The airline industry was one of the America's most stable and respected industries, and set the standards for the rest of the world. When I was hired by Pan Am in 1965, the airplane experience itself was seen as one of the highlights of travel. Passengers expected to be treated as guests, and flight attendants expected to make the passengers feel as comfortable as possible. There was a feeling that we were all in this together, and we all looked forward to having a good time. Now it's everybody for themselves. What has happened to the airline industry in our country is a tragedy, and seems to only be getting worse.
I feel very sad when I fly these days. Because of obvious inconveniences, almost nobody wants to be on airplanes, and flying is seen as a negative experience that must be endured. From my studies about trauma to airline personnel, I have found that many flight attendants have been traumatized by the changes in the aviation industry. They have suffered loss after loss in their working conditions; beleaguered flight attendants are on the front lines facing an angry and disgruntled public with no tools to use for the passengers' comfort. When flight attendants are asked for pillows or blankets or food, I cringe for them, because it must feel terrible to have nothing to offer. These are the employees that were chosen for the job because they are "people pleasers." Now left with a demoralizing inability to make passengers happy, some of them now describe that aspect of their personalities as "the disease to please."
Flight attendants have been subjected to wage and benefit cuts, as well as the fallout from mergers and takeovers and companies going out of business. Crews on any given flight are often made up of personnel who didn't start out with their current company, and have become like the ugly, unwanted step-siblings in a blended family. A common response from passengers to this dilemma is "Well, if they don't like it, they can quit." Really? These are people with mortgages and children going to college, and all the responsibilities that everyone faces. Just as is true for many people worldwide, quitting is often not a possibility. In fact, termination of pension plans are forcing many employees to work much longer than they had planned, until Social Security or benefits from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation kick in at age 65. Most workers worldwide can relate to the problem of having to work harder for less in a struggling industry.
When Steven Slater took his now famous slide down the emergency chute, beer in hand, after publicly telling off a nightmare passenger, my first response was to chuckle. I knew that this will be an ongoing aviation legend that will be told for years in galleys among flight attendants. My second thought was to wonder what finally pushed this flight attendant to such a point, which I imagined was a cry for help. I don't want to pretend that I can analyze Steven, because I don't know him. However, his story does point out the kinds of issues related to trauma within the airline community that I've written about before. I've worked with many patients who have endured some, or all, of these same issues. Fortunately, one thing that still works well in aviation is the airline and union EAP programs. They often prevent employee meltdowns from happening by getting proper help for vulnerable people before their behavior explodes into headlines. Unfortunately, Steven slipped through the cracks.
What I have been able to put together from the many articles that have been written is that Steven's father (a former pilot) died of Lou Gehrig's disease, one of the worst possible deaths for both patients and caregivers, and his mother (a former flight attendant) is very ill with cancer. Steven was, and apparently is, an active caregiver for both of them. His internet page indicates that he has been to rehab, which makes the story about the beer not so funny because it means that he lost his sobriety. He, like many flight attendants, has worked for several airline companies that have gone out of business, one after another, which in itself is a traumatic experience. So for me, Steven's story has the fingerprints of trauma all over it, but as I've stated, I don't personally know him. At this distance, it doesn't look like he was throwing off the shackles of employment; it looks like his actions were communicating about a traumatized state. I'm sure that the public would prefer to think that Steven triumphed over adversity, rather than that he was falling into a tailspin.
It's fascinating to me that Steven has become a folk hero, not only to frustrated airline employees, but to workers all over the world. They can identify with someone who has had to put up with negative stimuli day after day, until finally he encounters one rude and unthinking person too many and flips out. Instead of "going postal" and hurting someone, which we don't idealize, he vented his frustration and played out the fantasies of many people, perhaps especially in service jobs, by providing a Hollywood-like ending. How many of us wish we could tell everybody how we really feel, pull a lever for an exit slide, and leave in a blaze of glory? The story, of course, would not be funny at all if anyone had been hurt.
Most of all, what breaks my heart is that when I talk to the flight attendants on flights, they seem so grateful that I'm genuinely asking about them and their lives. I've seen passengers who don't even bother to answer the flight attendant who is asking them a question. As a former flight attendant, I remember so clearly how it felt to walk down airplane aisles, seeing all the friendly faces eager to have a conversation. Now passengers are hunkered down in their own isolated, uncomfortable seats, not even talking much with their seat mates. It's not the passengers' fault, because they are reacting to an unpleasant situation. Frequent flyers refer to themselves as "Road Warriors." But it's also not the flight attendants' fault, and they have to endure the rage of the disgruntled flying public.
I am aware, of course, that there are some rude flight attendants, just as every company has some "bad apples." I think, however, if you really pay attention, there are many more flight attendants who are trying their best under increasingly difficult circumstances. Flight attendants also say that, despite the appalling flying conditions, many passengers continue to be friendly and polite, which they greatly appreciate.
So, regardless of your opinion of Steven Slater and what he did, if there's a silver lining to the whole story, it's the spotlight that's been shown on the plight of flight attendants in contemporary aviation. Let's hope that light keeps shining, if only for a little while longer. And please, the next time you fly, just remember that flight attendants are people too!