Greg Lindsay's Blog

August 10, 2010  |  permalink

What Steven Slater’s Meltdown Says About Us

It’s hard to blame flight attendant Steven Slater for his meltdown aboard JetBlue Flight 1052 yesterday at JFK – after all, passengers have them all the time. If I understand the sequence of events correctly, a passenger unbuckled his seatbelt upon landing, stood up to retrieve his bag while taxiing (a no-no under FAA regulations), was reprimanded by Slater, hit Slater in the head with his bag from the overhead compartment, refused to apologize, and then called him a “motherfucker.” Slater promptly got on the PA, announced “To the passenger who just called me a motherfucker: Fuck you. I’ve been in this business 28 years and I’ve had it.” Then Slater opened the rear door, fired the emergency slide, grabbed a couple of roadies from the beverage cart, and exited stage aft.


Slater wasn’t sorry, and when he coincidently bumped into passenger Phil Catelinet on the AirTrain afterward, he told him so. He still didn’t seem sorry when police stormed his house hours later (they found him blowing off steam) or when he left court wearing a smirk. The incident touched off a small media frenzy, with viewers seeming to rally behind him. “Predicting JetBlue’s batshit flight attendant becomes a folk hero and guests on cable and talk shows,” Roger Ebert tweeted last night. “A Sully for 2010.”

But not all airline employees are so charismatic. In the last three days, both TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington and Infectious Greed’s Paul Kedrosky posted screeds about their recent flights from hell – on two different airlines. Arrington flew from New York to Seattle and back on Delta last week, losing his bag – along with the bags of all his fellow first class passengers—and enduring a sneering employee when he went to find it.

They would not deliver my bag to my home. I could choose to come back to the airport over the weekend. Or they’d be happy to fedex it to me for delivery on Tuesday. Can I have a receipt? No, our printer is broken.

The guy next to me needed his tuxedo, he said. No luck. Another guy, traveling from India, said he had medication in his bag that he needed immediately. That put a smile on the baggage counter woman’s face as she told him to go find a doctor over the weekend and get new prescriptions. Welcome to America.

Kedrosky endured something similar while passing through LAX recently on his way to San Diego on United. He missed his connection, the last flight of the night, despite racing to the gate ten minutes ahead of scheduled departure. The gate attendant was unsympathetic, to say the least.

“You were late. It’s not my fault. You’ll have to stay the night and fly out tomorrow.” He smirked right through it all. You could see he had zero sympathy, that he was happy to have this problem, and was delighted he could torture me a little at 11pm at night before going home for the weekend.

Long story short, I found my own way home: I rented a car. But I was pissed. I was pissed at his attitude. I was pissed that he showed zero interest in helping me. Pissed that he demonstrably took pleasure in my unhappiness. Pissed that he lied about my ticket and wasted my time arguing about it.

Should he have opened the door and let me on? It’s easy for me to say, “Sure”, but I get that sometimes it’s just not done. But it was the last flight out, the plane was still there, the jetway was still attached, and he wouldn’t even try. He wouldn’t even pretend to try. He just didn’t care, not one bit.

Passengers have been complaining about the indifference of airline employees for years, but somewhere along the way they morphed into sadists and sociopaths. Slater’s great escape may sound like fun, but he could have injured anyone beneath the plane when he explosively deployed the emergency slide, which costs five figures to replace. (He’s since been charged with two felonies, including reckless endangerment and criminal mischief.) We’re used to losing it while flying, but why are airline employees suffering psychotic breaks?

I think the answer is buried in today’s New York Times story about “rising” airfares thanks to additional fees. Hidden near the end is this telling quote: “’From 2000 to 2009 even when you figure in ancillary fees, we’re only showing an increase of four-tenths of 1 percent for an average one-way fare,’ said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association.” Which means fares have actually fallen during that span when you take inflation into account. What effect has this had on the airlines and their employees?

According to Forrester analyst Henry Harteveldt, “Airlines have been in a race to the bottom in terms of pricing,” he told the Times. “Unfortunately, fuel is not back at 1999 levels, labor costs are not back at 1999 levels. There are a lot of other things that cost the airlines more now.”

But we don’t want to believe that. I would hazard that the root of our anger toward the airline industry – which is inspiring hatred in return – is that we expect atoms to act like bits. We expect flying to conform to the same pressures of Moore’s Law that our smartphones do – they should become ever faster, ever better, ever cheaper. And we’re mad as hell that they’re not. The Financial Times recently floated the same assertion:

The problem is that, in a world of Moore’s law – shorthand for the computer industry’s ability to produce progressively more powerful and cheaper technology over the past 50 years – many people expect their flights to be better. “Most of the time, capitalism has managed to produce cheaper goods at a higher quality,” says author Alain de Botton, an aviation enthusiast and recent writer-in-residence at Heathrow. “I think the airline industry is a worrying exception: it’s cheaper but worse quality.”

“It’s a surprising trend too,” he adds, “because of the lack of apology. Imagine if a car manufacturer said ‘we’re going to make this cheap product and we’re going to glory in its shoddiness’.”

But, to paraphrase Jaron Lanier, your flight attendent is not a gadget. A flight to Chicago is not a Kindle, adding features even as the price of a ticket falls from $189 to $139. Delta and United will never be able to cut prices year after year after year while increasing the quality – or at least the novelty – of the experience.

In Aerotropolis, I propose we are living in the “Instant Age.” Computers, the Web, and mobile devices have warped our expectations to the point that we need everything now, which is fine if you’re talking about bits, but has incredible repercussions when you’re talking about atoms. One of those repercussions is the advent of ecommerce and the expectation that anything we purchase will be on our doorsteps tomorrow, which in turn requires the reinvention of Memphis and Louisville (the home hubs of FedEx and UPS) into thousands of acres of warehouses circling their airports.

Another expectation is that air travel should conform to the same development path as our gadgets, which simply isn’t possible. The result is a disgruntled passenger telling a flight attendant who is just doing his job to go fuck himself, followed by that flight attendant deciding it’s no longer worth it. It’s a toxic marriage with no way out. To quote Kedrosky:

I wish I could say, “So now I no longer fly United”, but I can’t say that, because I do fly United. Still. Despite that. But I have even more disgust than usual for these contemptible bastards who are supposed to be there to help, and who are mostly just there to torture people who pay their salary in a job that they hate.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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