Though I had not uttered a word, though I had yet to take action or toss a disparaging glance her way, the woman yelled at me as if I had just pissed on her azaleas or stolen her grandmother's purse. "This is pathetic!" she said, lurching toward me with real menace in her eyes.
For one nerve-rattling moment it seemed as though she might actually snatch my head with her massive paws and squeeze until it burst like a grape. Instead, the woman made a nonviolent, albeit equally intimidating gesture. Lips pursed, nostrils flaring, she brought her face to within a few inches of my own and thrust her hands upon hips that jiggled like huge jello molds in an earthquake. Then she sort of growled. That's the best way to describe it. She took one deep breath after another and growled.
I was assaulted by harsh breath that shot from her nostrils as if from a high-pressure air hose. The nose blasts hit me right between the eyes, on and off, on and off, in tune to the rhythm of her animosity. Despite a nervous twitching in my upper lip, I stood in front of the boarding gate like a true airline professional: a phony smile pasted across my face, fingers locked behind my back, shoulders back, chin up, chest thrust forward like an army recruit in the face of a maniacal drill instructor. I was dauntless. Unflappable. Quite capable of handling the situation. But as the hulking passenger loomed before me, growing angrier with each blink of her eyes, I felt the first pangs of vulnerability.
She was a big woman. A very big woman. Maybe 220, 230 pounds -- an inch or two taller than me and maybe 40 or 50 pounds heavier. With the exception of her hips, the rest of her body was as sturdy as an offensive lineman's. The only barrier between us was the flimsy podium that I had been standing behind while plucking tickets from some 200 passengers who were now safely aboard the aircraft and ready to fly to Barbados.
Professionalism be damned, I clutched the top of the plucking podium and felt myself take a tiny step backward. In my mind's eye, I saw the irate passenger turn the podium into kindling with one sledgehammer blow of her fist. But she wouldn't do something like that, would she? It was 9 a.m. We were standing in front of a departure gate at John F. Kennedy Airport. She wasn't going to go psycho on me. But when I looked into her eyes and saw storm clouds gathering there, I though it best to brace for the storm.
"How can you charge so much for extra baggage?" the woman demanded. "How can you!" When I opened my mouth to answer, she waved one hand, compelling me to silence. The barrage of questions continued as if I was the subject of an FBI interrogation. "Why did you change the checked baggage rates? Huh? Why are you making it so difficult for me to carry my belongings on your airplane? Do you have any idea how expensive this is? Huh? Do you? Why are you so inflexible? Why?"
She paused, gathering her hostility in one great exhalation. "You people are so ... so ... ughhh!"
Am I the one responsible for charging passengers for extra baggage? Am I the one to blame for a change in rates? Is my goal in life to make it difficult for passengers to carry belongings onto my airplane?
Because flight attendants spend more time with passengers than do other employee groups, we're often hit by the crap passengers want to throw at less reachable targets: baggage handlers, catering chefs, aircraft cabin designers and airline CEOs with $10 million salaries and golden parachutes that make them twice as rich upon retirement -- even if the airline goes belly-up in the interim.
We aren't the ones who design tiny overhead bins that can scarcely accommodate a tote bag, yet we get yelled at when there's not enough room for a carry-on bag the size of an Amana fridge. We don't establish short connection times, though we bear the brunt of passenger rage when they come stumbling onto an aircraft, clutching at their chests due to the 30-minute sprint from gate Z-29. We don't determine seat pitch, the boarding hierarchy or whether passengers should be served peanuts or lobster thermidor on a three-hour flight. And we most certainly don't create the pricing structure for additional checked baggage. All this is left up to some bonus-motivated number cruncher sitting at a computer in an ergonomic airline office (far away from seething, fist-clenching, flight attendant-hating passengers), creating policies that give shareholders a more profitable bottom line.
As for the female passenger who ached to put me in a headlock, she never gave me a chance to say what I'd been trained to say: We're sorry for any inconvenience the change in rates may have caused, ma'am. The increases were necessary due to blah, blah, blah in the blah, blah, blah because of blah-blah. She went on and on, refusing to let me speak, while lashing my ears with her ceaseless rant about unfair baggage rates.
Rather than bite the bullet and hand over her ticket as a couple of hundred passengers had done before her, the woman shook the ticket in my face. "This is ridiculous," she continued, spraying me with spittle as she spoke. "You should be ashamed."
"Please, ma'am," I said, wiping my face with a sweep of one uniformed arm. I pushed both hands forward in a gesture intended to make her step backward and settle down. "I don't know anything about a change in baggage rates. I don't impose company policy. If you have a question about rates, you need to return to the boarding desk and speak to the agent. I am a flight attendant, ma'am. I am not here to argue with you. I am not here to be spat upon either. I am here to take your ticket voucher, return your boarding stub, welcome you aboard the goddamn -- welcome you aboard the airplane and point you in the direction of your seat. That's it. That's all. I'm sorry!"
Apparently, my sermon fell upon deaf ears. The angry passenger proceeded to light into me with an "I'll never fly your fucking airline again" tirade that ranked among the best I've ever heard. "You people are the worst. The very worst!" she screamed. "I never have this problem when I fly other airlines."
I looked straight into her eyes, unable to quell the anger that had been bubbling inside. "When you fly other airlines, ma'am," I said, "I never have this problem either."
With that she was speechless.
Out of the corner of one eye, I noticed both gate agents rushing toward me. I looked at my watch. It was about a minute before departure. The agents were anxious to close out the flight on time. From about 20 yards away, one of them made a throat-slashing motion. This was a signal for me to pluck the passenger's ticket and hurry aboard. Reluctantly, I turned to face my tormentor. Eyes wide, mouth open, face scowling like an NBA coach after another bad call by the referee, she began to shout, showering me with spittle and unmerciful morning breath. As if to make an exclamation point, she tapped the ticket against my nose.
Two seconds later she repeated the infraction.
Repressing a primordial urge to punch the woman in her face, I snatched the ticket, removed the voucher and the small portion of the boarding pass, gave the woman the boarding stub and told her to either board the aircraft or be left behind. She responded with one final insult: "Only stupid people work for stupid airlines," or something of that nature. She then grabbed a duffel bag that seemed more like a body bag, and lumbered into the jet bridge. I followed, making sure to stay at least 10 feet behind.
Once inside the airplane, I asked the agent about the new baggage premium. The way she explained it, the airline had imposed a temporary increase due to heavy summer traffic. It was charging $50 for every additional bag to the Caribbean. Nobody was happy about it. Least of all the passenger who was presently plodding down the aisle.
After the woman found her seat, our twin-aisle DC-10 aircraft pushed back from the gate and began rolling. I'm not sure exactly how far down the taxiway we had gotten when the trouble began. It all happened after the purser announced our flying time from New York to Barbados. One minute I was gulping down some OJ and sharing layover plans with a member of my crew. The next minute a horrible scream ripped through the airplane. The sheer volume of the outburst could have made Alfred Hitchcock roll over in his grave. My guess was that a carry-on bag fell from the overhead bin and slammed into a passenger's head. Or maybe one of the more melodramatic female attendants had discovered a run in her pantyhose. Perhaps someone saw a rat in the cabin. More likely, the scream came from an outraged passenger who found out her seatmate paid a couple of hundred dollars less for the flight. (The range and complexities of airfares can make some people mad enough to scream.)
As cabin crew converged upon the coach-cabin screamer, instinct told me not to join them. I waited in the service center -- the galley area between first class and coach -- running one finger across the edge of my empty cup while the drama unfolded. Somehow, I knew who the screamer was. And though I refused to acknowledge this consciously, deep down inside I had an idea why she was screaming.
After attending to the passenger along with half of the crew, flight attendant Maybelle Montrose crept up the aisle, shaking her head in the slow jittery manner of a woman who should have retired long, long ago. Maybelle was a senior mama, a dinosaur of undetermined origin. When asked about retirement she once said, "They're gonna have to carry me off the airplane in a body bag." Though age and mileage had diminished her physical abilities (it took her about 20 minutes to prepare and serve a first-class gin and tonic), her tongue was as sharp as a Ginsu knife. "We got chicken, we got beef, we got drinks," she would say to startled first-class passengers. "Speak up if you want something. They tell me I'm deaf in one ear."
Maybelle saw me standing in the service center and fixed her good eye upon me.
"Did you pluck that passenger's ticket?" she said.
"Ahhhh ... yeah."
"Did you bother to read her boarding pass?"
"I didn't think so," she said, rolling her eyes. Maybelle put a frail hand on my shoulder. "That passenger isn't supposed to be on this airplane."
"What do you mean?"
"That scream you heard."
"It came from her. She let loose when she heard this plane was headed to Barbados."
"She's not going to Barbados?"
"She is now."
I stared at the floor, the grim realization of my ineptitude creeping up like a mugger in Nikes. "According to her ticket," Maybelle continued, "She's supposed to be flying to Montego Bay, Jamaica."
"Shit is right," she said. "And you're standing right in the middle of it. Where on earth did you learn to read?"
Today, this incident would have never occurred. Major airlines have spent millions of dollars on Enhanced Gate Readers, those ATM-like machines that stand before the boarding gate, swallowing and then spitting out boarding passes fed into them by flight attendants like me. Inside the belly of this electronic beast, boarding passes are scanned to check the passenger's name, travel date and flight number. A video display shows which seats are taken. Seat duplications are supposedly a thing of the past. Above all else, the machine is designed to prevent mistakes exactly like the one I had made. Had I been privy to an EGR while boarding the Barbados flight, the woman's ticket would have been spat out like a rotten apple. The words "Invalid Flight" would blink across the screen, urging me to send her to the proper gate.
But because EGR machines had yet to be invented, because I was rushed by agents, attacked by the passenger and driven by demons that still haunt me to this day, I failed to take a good look at her boarding pass. In frustration, I had snatched it and forced her to go on board. It was my fault, I admit it. I really screwed up this time. A Jamaica-bound woman was stuck on a Barbados-bound airplane, and there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it.
A few seconds after Maybelle and the purser entered the cockpit, the taxiing aircraft came to a sudden halt. I knew exactly what had transpired. The two women had no doubt informed the captain of our dilemma. In the process, they named me as the culprit. After firing off a couple of expletives, the captain probably radioed dispatch for consultation. We were in the middle of the morning rush hour at JFK. Planes were lined up nose to tail, moving down the taxiway in a stop-and-go procession that crawled toward the runway. Ultimately, the captain would make the final decision as to whether the aircraft would return to the gate and allow the passenger to deplane. He was probably chewing on his options at this very moment, and wondering if I actually had a brain.
While this was happening, a couple of flight attendants continued to console the mis-boarded passenger. Her screams had diminished, tapering down to gut-wrenching sobs that permeated the cabin like audio from the in-flight movie. From my hide-out in the service center, I could hear her. I hunkered down in front of the elevator, worried about retribution, plotting an escape, afraid to show my face in the cabin for fear of being spotted by 220 pounds of pissed-off passenger.
"That woman is really upset." Having heard a new voice, I turned to find a colleague standing next to me. Her name was Brenda or Glenda, I think. Maybe it was Melinda. We had been introduced during the preflight briefing. As is often the case with new faces (with the exception of rare characters like Maybelle Montrose) I had already forgotten my colleague's name.
"She's looking for you, you know," Brenda or Glenda or Melinda said.
"That woman. The one whose ticket you plucked by mistake. She's looking for you."
"You're kidding me."
"Nope. She said you're the one who took her ticket. You're the one who made her board the wrong flight. She wants your name. She wants to report you to the company. Judging by the way she keeps clenching her fists, I'd say she wants even more."
Brenda or Glenda or Melinda raised an eyebrow. "She's demanding to speak with you."
I just looked at her.
"I'm not going back there."
B.G.M. chuckled. "I can't say I blame you," she said. "She is a rather large woman and she's really ticked off."
Just then Maybelle and the purser emerged from the cockpit. Walking briskly through the first-class cabin, the purser wore a grim look on her face. Maybelle hobbled along, trying her best to keep up. When she reached the service center, she threw me a disgusted glance and started sucking at her dentures. Worse than chalk being dragged across a blackboard, the sucking sound was driving me insane.
I threw a look at Maybelle. Maybelle threw a look at me. Somehow, the sucking sound intensified.
Despite the high-pitched shrill of air being drawn through dentures, all eight flight attendants huddled together, waiting for the purser to speak. "The captain says he's not going to return to the gate," she said. "There are apparently several aircraft waiting in line behind us. We're No. 5 or 6 in line for takeoff. It'll take forever to get back to the gate. By the time we offload the passenger, get another departure slot and creep through traffic, the flight will be more than an hour late."
"So what about the mis-boarded passenger?" Brenda or Glenda or Melinda said.
The purser let out a sigh. "The captain said she's going to have to fly with us to Barbados and fly back later tonight on the return flight. There are no flights from Barbados to Jamaica. Dispatch says the company will provide hotel accommodations at JFK for the night. Tomorrow she'll have to show up at the airport for her flight to Jamaica."
Maybelle and the purser broke the huddle and walked down the aisle to deliver the bad news. The shouts that ensued were even louder than before. There were harsh words. Threats. The halfhearted promise of a lawsuit. Murmurs washed through the cabin as concerned passengers learned of the injustice. Above it all, there was Maybelle's creaky, grandmotherly voice, explaining, in no uncertain terms, that nothing could be done.
Unable to contain her anger, the woman rose from her seat. She was coming for me. All 220 pounds of her. From my position in the service center, I could hear heavy footsteps falling against the cabin floor. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. What should I do? Where could I go? Should I hide in the cockpit? Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Sneak down the right side of the aircraft as she marched up the left? Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Dial 911? Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. The footsteps were getting closer. No time for deliberation. In a true act of cowardice, I opened the elevator door, pushed the down button and descended to the lower lobe galley. There, out of the elevator and in the belly of the aircraft, I was haunted by the sound of footsteps from above. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Suddenly, there were shouts from the elevator shaft. Then the frantic pitter patter of flight attendant feet. There was a moment of silence, followed by muffled sobs and a heavy-footed retreat. Thump, thump, thump, thump ...
Soon afterward, the elevator engaged. As it descended, I looked through the elevator window and saw Maybelle Montrose's scrawny ankles, then her kneecaps and the loose-fitting shape of her uniform dress -- which was way too short for a woman of her age. When the elevator completed its journey, I finally saw Maybelle's face, a face crisscrossed with wrinkles and twisted into a permanent grimace. A face that could curdle milk. A face beaten, but not bowed, from decades of confrontations with passengers and crew.
She was smirking.
The elevator door swung open. Maybelle stepped out. She folded her arms and looked at me. Moments like these are what she lived for. There was a twinkle in her eyes that had not been there before my ticket-plucking fiasco. For an instant she was a spry young stewardess, anxious to see the world and all the wonders held within it. But when she opened her mouth, the facade crumbled.
"You caused quite a commotion upstairs," she said, her voice like a screen door on squeaky hinges. "But you can relax now. The passenger you screwed over is finally in her seat."
"Please," I said. "You've gotta do me a favor, Maybelle."
Her smirk blossomed into a full-grown smile. It grew wider, brighter. Her false teeth seemed to clatter with anticipatory glee. She knew what I was about to ask, and I knew what her answer would be. I asked anyway.
"Will you switch positions with me?" I said. Maybelle's jump seat was located in the first-class cabin, while mine was in coach -- perilously close to the enemy. "Please? I don't want to deal with that woman again. I don't think I can handle it."
Maybelle looked at me, twin beams of triumph gleaming from her ancient eyes. Without saying a word, she pointed a long, crooked finger toward the elevator. I stepped in, closed the door and felt myself rising, slowly, quietly, toward the fate I deserved.