Take this flight attendant job and shove it

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 attendants’ union.

It’s a poorly paid job that wreaks havoc on family life and mental health. Mr. Slater’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 baby’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 can’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 cliché 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. That’s why for his own safety and everyone’s else, Mr. Slater needs to find a new career.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

21 thoughts on “Take this flight attendant job and shove it”

  1. I agree that he cannot be reinstated in his old job, but I think he would be perfect as a participant in airport security theater, specifically as the guy who stands next to the metal detector and tells you to take your shoes off. Let's let him have a little fun with the passengers for a change.

  2. It appears to me that Mr. Slater has decided to end his career as a flight attendant, and that, if he hasn't, no airline would hire him.

  3. Hard Landing is a pretty old book. Pilot unions (and mechanics unions) have also gotten pretty crushed in subsequent years, although they have not been blameless actors in the saga of airline economic deregulation that has played out since the Carter years. The airline industry under economic regulation had been a fat happy oligopoly passing on part of its monopoly profits to its labor force, and flying was an expensive luxury. Now, commercial aviation is, if anything, safer than ever but it is remarkably cheap to fly, and the market is sufficiently competitive that few airlines can cover costs (visit the airline trade organization (ATA) site, airlines.org for details) and Americans fly in far greater numbers, albeit with much lower service quality. That is the customary outcome from economic deregulation.

    The economist Alfred Kahn (who was head of the CAB at the time of deregulation) is the person customarily called the "father of airline deregulation" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_E._Kahn

    My sympathies to Mr Slater. Economic deregulation may have added to the stresses of his life, but economic deregulation did not make his passenger an asshole.

  4. I agree that he shouldn't (and, surely, won't) be a flight attendant again – but I'd go further: if you ran an airline, would you sell him a ticket as a passenger, after his stunt with the slide?

  5. The interesting book "$20 a Gallon" has a long chapter on airline failures, and even the order in which they will fail, which he predicts occurs at $8/gallon.

  6. I heard that repacking and recertifying the slide costs $310,000. If that's true, he'll never be able to pay it back – that's 15-20 years gross wages for a flight attendant.

  7. I see no real reason (unless there's a jurisdictional loophole) why the passenger shouldn't be facing 20 to life. That's what USC 49 section 46504 provides for someones who uses a dangerous weapon to interfere with flight crews or flight attendants on an operating aircraft. Instead, that passenger will probably be in a position to get on another plane and be just as dangerous in a couple weeks.

  8. I quite agree with you about him not working in the air again, but I think no punishment whatsoever is in order. In an important sense, he did the right thing — something dramatic, and yes, something quite brave, which will illustrate the difficulties with his job far more eloquently than a union grievance ever could. He did nothing dangerous (he wasn't in the air, and I don't buy the someone could have been near the slide when it came down claim), and the amusement value, the I-sympathize value of his stunt is enormous. There is a reason people are hailing him as a hero, and I think to prosecute him would be nothing less than High Fuddy-Duddyism.

  9. Oh, and because I note that my earlier comment overlooked him entirely, dude with the bag should get at least as heavy a penalty as the flight attendant. Having just flown two round trips in two weeks, I was impressed by the courtesy and consideration that essentially everyone showed to everyone else (just common sense, really, as being an opportunistic jerk is unlikely to yield any noticeable advantage, and you have to stay crammed with these people in Cattle for hours), but also couldn't help noticing that even the slightest lack of consideration, of forethought, or even blameless lack of physical capacity could significantly delay the whole herd of passengers, all of whom were likely already quite stressed. Some people, like the bag dude, just Do Not Play Well With Others – and, again, I wonder whether the airlines should just tell him that they're taking their toys and leaving him at home.

  10. My wife once saw an important bidness executive type fellow rudely hurrying his way out of an aircraft as it released passengers, pushing and shoving to get to the door first. She later saw him in a long Starbucks line, twiddling with his smart thing.

  11. I still blame airlines on their infuriating luggage policies. I try, really hard, to fly light, even for longer trips, but that's probably because I fly a lot and I just don't have patience for the airline games. Now that many airlines are charging very high rates for even checked luggage, I have noticed a big uptick in the amount and size of bags being dragged on board. I flew SW several times this summer and noticed something else, as well: people get on board and put their luggage in the compartment closest to the front they can find and then find an aisle seat somewhere in the back. So, getting on and off, you have people wondering back and forth to store and then retrieve luggage. I keep my head down and don't say anything but this made boarding and leaving logistically more difficult on each occasion (all flights were completely full). I just don't understand why airlines indulge their passengers in bringing so many bags on board even as they seem positively indifferent if not downright hostile to their comfort in every other way.

  12. Barbara, I wondered along similar lines, about why the airlines are charging for checked luggage instead of for carry-ons, when it's the carry-ons that seem to slow boarding and unboarding. One person (not an expert) pointed out to me that, in addition to the obvious point that the airlines have to pay for baggage handlers and their equipment, the airlines can sell unused baggage space to freight firms, which they can't easily do for the overhead bins.

    Also, the delays as people hunt for overhead bin space and try to cram their bags into spaces that are just a bit too small for them may be irritating, but I'm not sure they add up to much. In order for those delays to really start costing the airlines money (as opposed to merely costing them goodwill – and an alternative strategy such as charging for overhead bin space instead might similarly vex their customers), they would have to reduce the number of times per day that the plane or its crew can fly a route (or perhaps fly a round trip) – and if you take even a shortish shuttle flight, totaling two-and-a-half hours including the flight, taxiing, loading, unloading, and servicing, the airlines would have to shave a bit more than ten minutes off of the loading-and-unloading before they could squeeze another flight out of the plane each 16 hour day (and one of the crews would have to work more than eight hours, which might have issues both for overtime and for air safety rules). I'm not sure changing baggage patterns would accomplish that ten minute reduction, or that the airlines would make more money.

  13. I realize that the airlines' insanity on this point is for their own benefit and makes quite a bit of sense for them. Nonetheless, it does seem like it could limit the size and quantity of luggage dragged aboard so long as it publicizes its policies well, so that people will have to factor luggage policies into how they compare airline prices. Basically, what is going on is that people choose what comes up as cheapest on a travel site, and the airlines know this, and so charge at the back end when the customer has already decided. My point is that they seem all too happy to blame customers for their baggage excesses when they materially contribute to the confusion, and really, it's a factor that contributes to the mayhem that takes place on board.

  14. Certainly, I'd cheer if the travel site(s) I use (Orbitz, usually, out of habit and because the prices seem to be the same on the other sites) included in the price display or the search options an indication of luggage and any other fees. In fact, I see no reason they haven't added such a feature already – isn't there some airline (and I can't recall which) that's using its lack of a checked-luggage fee as a selling point?

    About the size-and-quantity of carry-on luggage, they do regulate it, in that they have these steel-frame boxes in the check-in area, and if you can't slide your bag into the box you are required to check the bag. Both compliance and enforcement seem to be lacking, especially since check-in is now usually done by interaction with a terminal, not a person (who might tell you your carry-on has to be checked), and the TSA security screeners (who do look at the bags) are so far as I know quite rightly not charged with worrying about this issue. Furthermore, I doubt whether there's enough overhead bin space for every passenger to have a bag of maximum allowable dimensions, especially if they're not all loaded in the proper orientation, and that's not even counting shopping bags, winter coats, and other possessions.

    Also, while all of these issues of luggage policy are fun to talk about, the precipitating incident here wasn't an issue of insufficient baggage space, but of one cad's insufficient respect for his fellow man (not to mention for the rules).

  15. Re the last paragraph, of course, you are right, but the overall tenor of flying, never all that good, has become a lot more stressful IMHO since the airlines started charging more and more often for checked baggage. For one thing, not checking bags makes the security line slower, and if you make up your mind at the last minute you might forget that you have "forbidden items" in the bag you decided not to check (which happened to me recently). It really chaps me that United Airlines, for instance, charges $45 for every item after the first even on international flights.

    But mostly, I try hard to enter my airport zen state of mind whenever I fly and to take all insults to my dignity with complete equanimity. It's just easier in the long run and I certainly don't want to get arrested or fired!

  16. I don't know – I've found that I've actually become more relaxed while flying in recent years, perhaps because, similarly to what you describe, I basically take a resigned approach to the process and simply try not to notice the inconveniences and indignities and try to minimize the degree to which I contribute to those of other people. I also think that the software and process management have gotten a bit better, with the self-check-in kiosks largely eliminating what used to be interminable lines, and maybe I've just gotten better at handling the process.

    Certainly, when the baggage fees were first (and rather suddenly) introduced the skies were extremely unfriendly for a time, between the people seething at the $50 they'd been charged and the mass of people trying to cram everything into the overhead bins and lacking the proper bags and the experience to do so efficiently.

    I have to say, as someone who travels infrequently and dresses casually, and so doesn't often have to check bags, the rule I most resent is the "no liquids" rule, as there are perishables I'd like to bring with me when returning from a visit to my hometown that I cannot unless I pay to check luggage.

  17. Spirit Airlines started charging for overhead space and people went berserk. One important thing about baggage fees is that it is untaxed revenue since it is not subject to the passenger ticket tax. This both allows airlines to slide by a bit on taxes and reduces the revenue into the Airports and Airways Trust Fund, which funds most of FAA.

  18. Your notion that Slater should not be re-hired reminds me of the old joke, "you can't quit! You're fired!"

    He doesn't want his old job back.

    Mental treatment? Please, he's been tending his dying mother who also worked in the airline industry after he took care of his father.

    And let the airline eat the cost. If it is $300k, that is modern debtors prison for him and a drop in the bucket for the airline.

    The man deserves a cold beer and a pat on the back and no less.

  19. "It’s a poorly paid job that wrecks havoc on family life and mental health. "


    1. Cause (a large amount of damage or harm): "torrential rainstorms wreaked havoc yesterday".

    I post when "to" is used instead of "too", too.

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