Particularly in a recession, many Americans in the service industry are going to sympathize with Steve Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who fled his airplane after being struck and treated like garbage by a passenger. My heart goes out to him, but my head says that no matter what punishment he receives or what help he gets (and he deserves both), he can never go back to his old job.
Jonathan Zasloff is right on point when he says that President Carter is in many ways the father of airline deregulation, although Senator Ted Kennedy and then-Congressman (later Secretary of Transportation) Norman Mineta were also key players. As it happens, I just read Hard Landing by Thomas Petzinger Jr., a truly brilliant book about the airline industry that makes clear that flight attendants were probably the biggest losers in deregulation. More often than not, the airlines have been able to cut deals with the big boys (and I used that gender-specific term advisedly) — the pilots’ unions — and thereby outmaneuver and crush the flight attendantsâ€™ union.
Itâ€™s a poorly paid job that wreaks havoc on family life and mental health. Mr. Slaterâ€™s experience is not unique in terms of abuse by passengers: The worst story I have heard concerned a passenger smacking a flight attendant on the head with her babyâ€™s recently discarded diaper. Yet the perceived romance of travel keeps the number of young job applicants high, weakening the ability of current flight attendants to bargain for better labor conditions.
Mr. Slater was coping with all that, and apparently based on news coverage he also had other stresses in his life, including caring for his ailing parents. Were I a judge, I would order him to repay the financial damage he caused and get some sort of mental health care, but certainly not jail him for even a day (the entitled passenger who got up when he was not supposed to, hurt Mr. Slater with his luggage and then refused to apologize should get zero compensation).
All that said, Slater simply canâ€™t go into the air again. Predicting rare behavioral events, like violence, has been extremely difficult for social scientists. We usually end up falling back on the completely accurate clichÃ© that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The odds of any member of the flight crew losing it at altitude and doing something to endanger the passengers and crew are very very low, so low that we will never be able to predict it for any one individual…with the sole exception of those who have committed such an act before. Thatâ€™s why for his own safety and everyoneâ€™s else, Mr. Slater needs to find a new career.