Not unlike the upbraids that restaurant servers suffer through when their patrons’ food arrives cold or overcooked, the beleaguered flight attendant must bear the brunt of frustrated, uncomfortable, and hungry passengers — even though it’s not their fault.
But how did we go from this happy helpful portrait…
To scenes like this, depicting angry conflicts between passengers and flight attendants?
We called Heather Poole, a long-time flight attendant and author of the best-selling book, Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, to get a flight attendant’s perspective on the changing culture and etiquette of air travel and what passengers can do to make things better in the air.
LISTEN to our podcast with Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude.
ExpertFlyer: We wanted to understand the attitudes and perceptions of flight crews to see what you’re thinking about us passengers and maybe how we can behave better so that everybody is happy when they’re flying.
Heather: Let me just start by saying that we love 99% of passengers. There’s just those one or two incidents, and those problems just seem to be huge issues because you’re confined to a tube for hours.
EF: What are some of the most unexpected or inappropriate things a passenger has done on a flight?
Heather: Well, I would say at this point in my life, it would be when somebody pinches my butt and then after scolding them to return to their seat, they comply only to come back and do it again. That’s a little bit of a shocker. But early on in my career, I’ve had passengers steal my blazer or my breakfast. I’d leave out a McDonald’s sandwich on the galley counter, and then someone would take my egg McMuffin! But the strangest thing for me is when people ask to borrow my dental floss. What other job, where else in the world, would you go and ask an employee if you could borrow their dental floss? I think it’s amazing that passengers feel so comfortable that they would ask to borrow something from my toiletry bag.
EF: Do you think that over the years there’s been a change in terms of the training that you’ve had to mitigate conflicts with passengers, because it seems like there’s so much more volatility with passengers today?
Heather: Yes. Oh my goodness, yes. First of all, in the airline industry things change very quickly. My job, from one year to the next is a completely different job. When a flight attendant who hasn’t flown in 10 years does an interview and talks about flying, it bothers me because it’s like, “You have no idea what I’m dealing with. It’s nothing like your experience. So don’t compare how nice you were 20 years ago to how rude flight attendants are today because it’s a completely different environment. Did you have to learn martial arts to handle unruly passengers or more insidious threats when you were flying or were you learning how to serve caviar in first class?” It’s a totally different job now.
When you are initially hired, flight attendants get seven to eight weeks of training at a major carrier and then every year we go back for recurrent training, and that’s a couple of days. As part of the recurrent training, policy and procedures may be changed, particularly if there was an incident. So, if there was an accident or passenger conflict that was covered by the media, we would cover that in our training. Corporate will make videos of the crew who was involved and the crew will talk about how it happened, how it went down and their feelings about it. And then you hear it from every perspective on the plane. It’s very interesting because it’s a completely different story from a different angle or a different cabin.
Then they’ll talk about what didn’t work, like what part of our training doesn’t work, and then the airline will actually change the procedures, whether it be a medical procedure or evacuation procedure. And a really good example of how things have changed would be our evacuation procedures because we learn commands that have to be memorized verbatim. Over the years, it’s just become very, very simple. Every other line is, “Leave everything.” So it’s, “Unfasten your seatbelt. Leave everything.”
When my son was about five years old, he’d come to my room and heard me rehearsing and he says, “Why are you saying leave everything all the time?” I said, “Why? Nobody listens. So we say leave everything every two seconds.”
EF: Do you remember the Aeroflot incident several months ago? There were tons of pictures in the media of the passengers that were able to thankfully escape from the burning plane and they had luggage in tow! It made you think, “Well, hmm, why did they make that decision?” And had they left the luggage would more people have been saved?
Heather: Many travelers have blinders on, and don’t realize that if they grab their bag what the consequences could be. There are 160 other people who are thinking the exact same thing and they all do it. When they create evacuation drills or they have an airplane, a new plane, they have to prove to the FAA that they can evacuate the people within a certain amount of seconds. When they do those planned evacuations, is everybody grabbing their bags? Probably not. And that slows people down and people don’t understand it’s not just them, it’s every single person who thinks that their Louis Vuitton carry-on is more important than anyone else. It’s frustrating and dangerous.
EF: Let’s say there’s a passenger that raises suspicious for some reason or other. How do you confirm your suspicion without causing alarm or danger to passengers? What do you do when you think somebody’s up to something?
Heather: Well, I mentioned that we have those incidents. We talk about those issues and what’s going on. One of the more interesting ones with Richard Reid. Remember him, the shoe bomber?
Heather: And I remember everybody in that video, every flight attendant in that video said, “I got this really weird feeling about him,” but nobody said anything to anyone else because you just think, “It’s just me.” So now when I have a passenger that’s giving me a really weird vibe, I purposely make a point to ask all my crew members, “What do you think about that guy? Are you getting a weird feeling?” And if everybody says they’re getting a weird feeling, we pay attention and we have things to do. But if everyone’s agrees that everything is fine, I might drop my guard a little bit, maybe.
But if I’m feeling it very strongly, there’s a lot of things we can do and one of them is to engage the passenger. We just have a conversation, and you can learn a lot about a person. So if they come on board, maybe they just got into a fight with their loved one and they are holding a lot of tension inside, or maybe they’re scared to death to fly and I’m reading the signals wrong or maybe somebody died. And there’ve been times when I’ve talked to somebody and I still get a really crazy vibe, but engaging in conversation is the number one thing because you then can feel it out better and more clearly.
EF: Do you ever speak to the sky marshal?
Heather: We have to know who they are and where they are in case something were to happen and then they were to pop up, we need to know whose team everybody’s on and where they’re sitting and what’s going on. But we don’t call them out and we try to help them blend in.
EF: If you were really concerned, would you have a word with the sky marshal to intervene?
Heather: Yeah, I would, and I have, but their job is really just to protect the cockpit and that’s it. They’re not going to just pop up. Even if there’s a fight, they’re probably not going to pop up and say anything because they have one job.
EF: So what do you wish air travelers had a better understanding of before they fly?
Heather: A couple of things: I can’t go poof and make bag space appear and it’s not a personal attack against anyone when their bags don’t fit. I wish people took a little more care of themselves, took a little more responsibility, and I know people get angry. I also suggest bringing water. Buy the water when you get through security. I always buy water whether I’m working or not because diversions happen, delays happen, and the plane runs out of water and you have nothing.
I pack like I’m camping. I have snacks that don’t expire just in case, because I’ve actually been on a flight where we were delayed five hours and then with weather and a diversion, I’m crawling on my hands and knees in a cart looking for a nut for myself because I’m so hungry.
Flights are double catered, which means there is twice the amount of food on board because the flight attendants host two flights in a row and it saves money to load it all one time. So, all this stuff is crammed in there, but it’s not all ours to use. And there are a lot of carts we can’t touch. We only have a tiny bit of stuff. And then gosh, when something goes wrong and we don’t have any food and people get hungry and thirsty, it makes a huge difference to take care of yourself and to arrive early, because when one thing goes wrong, it all goes wrong. And then by the time you get on the plane, you’ve already had the worst flight of your life.
EF: Are there any tips or tricks or ways of getting a better seat, anything like that based on your vast experience flying that maybe someone else could take advantage of?
Heather: Be nice. I know it sounds so simple, but people are so wound up and angry that when somebody comes on board smiling and says hello and actually looks at me at the same time, I’m almost thrown off. And I find myself drawn to them. I just want to give them everything because it’s just so rare for somebody to make eye contact and speak to you at the same time. That pleasant person is like this diamond that just sparkles and I think, “Here, take some water, take some more pretzels.” If I have it, I’ll give it to them.
If I see a passage help another traveler with a bag, I think, “Oh, he’s amazing. I wish I had somebody to fix him up with,” because I rarely see that anymore.
To learn more about Heather Poole and her experiences and escapades at 35,000 feet, visit her site where you can also check out her book, Cruising Attitude.