Out of the mouths of passengers

Flight attendants hear the craziest things.

By Elliott Neal Hester
Published May 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Dressed in my poly-wool flight-attendant uniform, a set of gold wings
glinting from my lapel, I am standing in an airport concourse in front of
departure gate B-12. As the final Caribbean-bound vacationers file into the
jet bridge, I collect their tickets and welcome them aboard the aircraft. It
is precisely 5:52 p.m. The flight is scheduled to depart at 6. Two
passengers walk up and present their tickets, but they hesitate before
handing them over. They are a married couple in their late 30s. They are
well dressed and seemingly intelligent. This is the conversation that
transpires between the husband and me:

"What time does the plane leave?" he asks, looking at his watch.

"Six o'clock," I say.

"Do we have time to buy a bagel before departure?"

"Well, sir, the plane is departing in eight minutes."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says in an irritated voice. "But do we have time to
buy a bagel?"

"As I said, sir ... the plane --"


Now, here's my dilemma: If I say, "No, I don't think you have time to buy a bagel or a newspaper or
a souvenir for your kid," as I've said to countless last-minute boarders in
the past, he may respond -- as some of those last-minute boarders have -- as if I have a personal vendetta. "YOU, a lowly
flight attendant, are telling ME that I don't have time to get a bagel?"
(This makes me wonder why they bother to ask in the first place.)

If I say, "Yes, you have time, but hurry," and the passenger returns to find that the
plane has departed without him, he'll want to sue the airline. "So what if
it took me 45 minutes -- the flight attendant told me I had time to get a

So, in an effort to maintain my sanity and my job, I respond to the
bagel-loving husband with politically correct logic. "I'm sorry, sir, but I do not know how long it will take you to walk to the
bagel counter. I do not know how many people are standing in the bagel line.
Nor do I know how quickly the bagel people can prepare, package and ring up
your bagel order. Furthermore, I don't even know where the bagel counter is.
What I do know is that this plane is departing in exactly (I look at my
watch) seven minutes. If YOU think that's enough time to buy a bagel, then
by all means go and buy a bagel."

Both the husband and wife give me a dirty look. They stomp into the jet
bridge, twin Travel Pros swerving behind them like tiny black automobiles
out of control. The husband tosses a last-minute insult over one shoulder.
"We're never flying this fucking airline again."

Once our plane reaches cruising altitude, I begin the dinner service with my
flight attendant colleagues. The woman in window seat 12-A is staring at the
ocean some 30,000 feet below. When I ask if she'd like dinner, she turns and
stares at me. She is about 45 years old. She is well dressed and seemingly
intelligent. This is the conversation that transpires between the
woman in 12-A and me:

"Can I ask you a question?" she says.


"Why did the airplane stop moving?"

"Excuse me?"

"The airplane. It's not moving anymore. Why did it stop?"

"What exactly do you mean, Miss?"

By now, passengers sitting within earshot
are beginning to stir in their seats. Eyes widen. Brows wrinkle. In an
attempt at suppressing laughter, the flight attendant working the other side
of the meal cart bites her bottom lip. She bites so hard, I am
surprised there is no blood.

"I mean the plane isn't moving anymore," the woman in 12-A continues. Her
voice has gotten louder. The teenager in 11-A doubles over in a fit of
silent sniggering.

"Trust me," I say. I push my open hand toward her in the universal gesture
that says: Calm down, everything is fine. "I assure you the plane did not
stop moving, Miss. As a matter of fact, it's traveling at almost 500
miles per hour. Look out the window. See those clouds?"

"Uh huh."

"See how they're moving away from us?"

"Oooh, yeah," she says after about 20 seconds. "Thanks."

An hour later, I answer a flight attendant call light. The passenger in
seat 20-F is complaining about the man sitting directly behind her. Each
time she reclines her seat, the man pushes her seat back to the upright
position. I turn to look at him. He is a businessman. He is well dressed and
seemingly intelligent. This is the conversation that transpires between
the businessman and me:

"Sir, why are you pushing this woman's seat to the upright position?"

"Because I don't have enough room."

"But, Sir, she has the right to recline her seat."

"And I have the right to the space in front of my face."

"Well, Sir," I say, "she has the right to recline her seat, and you are
entitled to whatever space remains. If you need more space in front of your
face you have the option to recline your seat." He stares at me as if I just
insulted his mother.

"What is your name?" he says.

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me. What is your name?"

I give him my name.

"You are rude and unaccommodating," he says. "I'm going to complain to your
supervisor and I'm never going to fly this airline again." The woman in 20-F
shakes her head incredulously. She turns around, hurls a profanity-laced
insult at the businessman, then offers to write a countermeasure letter to
my supervisor.

A few minutes before landing, I make a final pass through the cabin to
check for seat belt compliance. The woman seated in 26-C is wearing her seat
belt. She is well dressed and seemingly intelligent. Her daughter, a
precious 4-year-old, is sprawled across a row of seats on the opposite
side of the aisle. The sleeping 4-year-old is not wearing a seat belt. This
is the conversation that transpires between the woman in 26-C and me:

"We're landing, Miss. You might want to make sure your child is buckled

"Oh, that's OK," she says.

"Excuse me," I say.

"She's sleeping. I don't want to wake her up."

"You don't want to wake her up?"

"I don't want to wake her up."

"It's not safe for her to land without wearing a seat belt, you know. The
FAA requires all passengers to buckle up."

The woman in 26-C glares at me in silence. A moment later she says
something under her breath. Something sharp and rude and insulting. Still,
she makes no attempt to buckle up her child.

I glare back at her.

"Look!" she says, realizing that I'm not leaving without a response. "My
daughter is sleeping!"

"Let me rephrase this," I tell her. I lean forward and speak in a
confidential whisper. "When this plane touches down on the runway it will be
traveling at more than 100 miles per hour. Do you understand? If the pilot
is forced to hit the brakes prematurely -- as pilots have been known to do
on occasion -- do you think your child will still be sleeping?"

A wave of understanding washes over her face. She gets up, fastens the
seat belt around the groggy kid, then throws a dirty look at me.

Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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