Common cattle

Every now and then, flight attendants must fly with the unwashed masses. It sucks.


Elliott Neal Hester
December 15, 2000 1:00AM (UTC)

Having worked as a flight attendant for the past 15 years, I purchase full-fare airline tickets about as often as supermodels pay for sex. In exchange for perpetual standby status, some airlines let employees fly for free. Others impose a minimal service charge on employee passes. We off-duty airline employees linger at the departure gate, batting our eyes at the gate agent, praying there's an empty seat. "Nonrevenue" travel is an industry birthright that, over the years, has turned millions of common airline folk into members of the discount jet set. Sometimes we fly from New York to Los Angeles simply to lunch with a friend.

The downside to this wonderful perk is the risk of being bumped from the flight. When this happens (and it happens quite often) we're forced to stand by for the next flight. And maybe the next. By the time we're turned away from the last flight of the day, we are frazzled, bitter and worn. Then we return to the airport the following day to repeat the nonrevenue-passenger process.

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Because my sister was to be married in Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 8, I couldn't take the chance of being bumped from my Oct. 6 flight from New York. Unless her matrimonial record ends up like Elizabeth Taylor's, this wedding would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Besides, the wedding rings were tucked in the pocket of my jeans. If I failed to show up, the ceremony would be ruined. I handed my credit card to a travel agent for the first time in 15 years. I actually winced when she snatched it.

The full-fare, coach-class, round-trip ticket from New York to Barcelona cost $415. As I wheeled my carry-on toward the Iberia Airlines check-in counter at JFK Airport, I experienced a traveler's epiphany. No longer was I the lowly airline employee hoping for an empty seat. Suddenly I realized that by forking over a large sum of cash, I was one of them -- a full-fare passenger, armed with the right to bitch and moan, able to demand service with a tantrum.

Almost immediately, I was pounced upon by a roaming customer service representative. "You're going to have to check that bag," she said as I rolled up behind the zigzag procession of passengers at the ticket counter.

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"Excuse me?"

"Your bag," she said, pointing to my one and only carry-on. "It's too big; you're going to have to check it."

I looked down at my regulation Travel Pro 22-by-14-by-9-inch airline-issue roll-aboard. It's the same black bag I've wheeled onto thousands of airplanes, the same piece of luggage that easily fits in the overhead bin of the Boeing 767 aircraft I was about to board. My Travel Pro could be the poster bag for carry-on propriety.

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"Ahhhh ... it's not too big," I assured her, smiling.

"Yes it is," she said.

"No it's not."

"Yes. It. Is." Her words came in a harsh staccato burst that reminded me of childhood arguments with my mother. She might as well have been telling me it was time for bed.

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I understand the difficulty of spending eight hours on your feet, regurgitating airline policy upon an often infuriating and infuriated public. But the rep had been off base with her comment. I stared in disbelief at the airline employee, my colleague. Instead of acquiescing as I would normally have done while traveling on an employee pass, I decided to stand my ground. I was a legitimate full-fare passenger, after all. How dare she infringe upon my rights.

"I'm sorry, there seems to be some confusion," I said. "My carry-on is well within the limits of airline policy. It fits in all the overhead bins that run along each side of the 767 cabin. It fits in the overhead bins above the center seats, too."

"It's a full flight," she barked. "It's too big."

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This is why so many passengers are pissed off by the time they finally make it to the airplane. Many times I've manned the aircraft door, greeting passengers with a "Welcome aboard" and a smile, only to have them growl like wounded lions.

"Look," I said, exasperated. "The bag fits."

She crossed her arms, looked me up and down and then frowned. "We'll see," she said.

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If the customer service representative was the Wicked Witch of the North, the ticket agent was Mother Teresa. She welcomed me with a genuine smile that instantly put me at peace. "Sure, your bag can be accommodated in the overhead bin," she said, while issuing my boarding pass. "Have a nice flight." She meant it, too -- I could tell by the song in her voice.

But when I strolled away from the ticket counter, carry-on in tow, I felt twin laser beams boring into my back. I spun around, fast enough to catch the customer service agent averting her eyes. She was going to get me. I could feel it.

When I boarded the flight 45 minutes later, guess who was standing at the departure gate? In my mind's eye I saw the customer service rep snatch my Travel Pro and try to run away. In reality, I handed my boarding pass to the flight attendant and, just before entering the jetway, I locked eyes with the rep. She sort of shrugged her shoulders, no longer interested in me and my bag.

The plane was packed. I was seated in an aisle seat, near the middle of coach. As the final passengers trickled into the cabin, passengers in my area began to focus on four empty seats. These were crew rest seats, reserved for flight attendants during long-haul trips such as this. After the service, the attendants are allowed to take turns resting. At this time they are temporarily off duty. Most passengers don't know this, of course -- before takeoff, they look at four empty seats and see visions of transatlantic comfort.

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The man in front of me made a break for one. He was a big guy and could no doubt use the extra room. But as soon as he plopped into the crew seat, a flight attendant immediately asked him to move. I could hear her explaining the policy. I could hear him saying it was ridiculous. This is an ongoing battle between passengers and flight attendants. "Just let me sit here until you guys finish the service," passengers will say. If the attendants make the mistake of allowing a passenger to sit in the seat, they open a can of worms that can never be closed. When the first attendants come to rest, the passenger is either asleep or so comfortable that he'll vacate the seat only after being threatened by a visit from the captain. Believe it; this has happened to me more than once.

Moments after the big guy retreated to his original seat, four last-minute passengers hustled on board. Judging by the familiar way they spoke with cabin crew, I knew they were airline employees. But the big guy didn't know that. When the four passengers sat in each of the four crew seats, the big guy went ballistic. He began shouting at the flight attendants. The passengers are non-revenue employees, one flight attendant told him. "When the crew rests begin, they will have to stand up in the back."

Taking great interest in this comedy of errors was the woman sitting across the aisle from me. As a matter of fact, she seemed to take great interest in just about everything. The boarding music ("inane"), the cabin interior ("unappealing"), even Spain itself ("a marvelous little country," which no one knew more about than she). The poor Spanish girl wedged into the window seat was forced to listen to this woman's pontifications through takeoff, the cocktail, dinner and coffee services and the beginning of the in-flight movie. Anyone sitting near ground zero was bombarded by her ramblings about Spanish museums and Antoni Gaudí architecture. She spoke with constant, deafening pretentiousness. Then suddenly, after finishing a second can of beer, the woman fell fast asleep. Bam! She was out. It was as if someone had knocked her unconscious -- exactly what I had felt like doing.

Mouth open, legs spread as wide as Mike Piazza waiting for a fastball, the woman's head lolled on her neck as if it weighed 100 pounds. In the next instant, her head fell onto the shoulder of her Spanish seatmate. Unable to pry the snoring woman from her shoulder, the Spanish woman pressed the flight attendant call light. They readjusted her limp body, reclined the seat and everybody laughed.

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Everyone but me. It was at this time that the wedding rings went missing. Two 18-karat gold bands, each in its own tiny case, had been in the right, front pocket of my jeans. Every few minutes I would pat the pocket just so I'd know they were still there. During the last pat-down, I freaked. The rings were gone.

Visions of an apocalyptic wedding danced in my head. Months earlier, when I'd asked what she'd like as a wedding present, my sister -- an unconventional woman to say the least -- asked me to buy the wedding rings. Bursting with pride, I went to several jewelers, searching for just the right bands. Not only did my sister trust my taste in jewelry, she trusted me to fly across the Atlantic and show up with the goods less than 48 hours before she would recite her vows. Now she was going to murder me.

After five or six minutes of cardiac arrest, however, I found the precious metals. The boxes were wedged between the seat cushions.

The wedding went off perfectly. My sister and her new husband were happy with their rings. But two days after the reception, after taking a cab to Barcelona's airport to catch my flight home, a funny thing happened.

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If you have time to listen, I'll tell you about it sometime.


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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