How did the friendly skies get so unfriendly, nasty and mean?

Since news broke of the spectacular meltdown of Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who cursed a passenger on the public-address system and then left his plane — and likely his career — behind with one dramatic escape down an emergency slide, countless disillusioned travellers who’ve been venting their frustrations.

Many, but not all, gripe about nasty fellow passengers. To some, flight attendants are equally to blame for unfriendly skies.

Robb Dougherty, a Texas hairstylist, used to be a frequent flier. But he couldn’t stand the nasty travelers he’d constantly encounter — people who felt entitled, who talked down to flight attendants, who raged when they weren’t poured a full cup of soda or given an extra pillow.

“Once, it was such a thrilling, exciting adventure to fly,” says Dougherty, 41, who now stays close to home. “It’s become just a nasty experience. People swat you with their bags and don’t apologise. No smiles. No nothing.”

Jim Erickson, for example, says he got on a plane a few years back and then got sick. He got worse on board, requiring a number of trips to the lavatory, which meant squeezing by flight attendants with their carts.

One attendant accidentally splashed a bit of water on herself as she backed up a row to let him pass. “She got very rude with me,” says Erickson, a business analyst from Fort Worth, Texas. “I remember it left me feeling genuinely bad. Not only her words, but her continued attitude and looks at me for the remainder of the flight. Other flight attendants did nothing.”

Erickson, who was even a platinum-level flier, using the carrier (he prefers not to say which) twice a week, hastens to add that this is one bad experience, not an indictment of all flights or flight attendants.

But he bemoans the incivility — or mere indifference — that he sees on airplanes these days — even if most flights pass smoothly with little drama.

“Airline travel used to be a big event that prompted you to put on your suit and tie,” says Erickson, 34. “Pilots stood at the doorway ... flight attendants were glamorous hosts and hostesses. Now, many American carriers have become cattle cars.”

How did it come to this? Passengers and those in the travel industry cite a number of factors, among them post-September 11, 2001 security concerns, packed planes, and budget-tightening, leading to those dreaded fees.

“I think there’s a feeling out there that you’re getting taken when you fly on an airline,” says Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer Guides and daughter of Arthur Frommer. Plus, flying, she added, “is a high-stress experience. You’re just a number when you fly. It’s not like other parts of your life. Any feeling of control you have is gone.”

That can lead to severe anxiety, says Katherine Muller, a clinical psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, who flies frequently and has suffered her own anxiety on flights at times. “You’re in this tight place with limited mobility,” says Muller. “You’re subject to all these rules, surrounded by people. You have no access to your regular ‘stuff.’ All this for a number of hours in a row.”

Starting to feel claustrophobic? Muller’s not finished. “On top of that, a lot of people have fears about flying. They may not talk about it, but they have it. Some people self-medicate, with pills and alcohol, so their behaviour becomes less inhibited.” (Needless to say, Muller does not recommend such a solution.)

As for flight attendants, Muller points out that they’re people too, subject to nerves, just like us.

Traci Dolan, a bartender in West Virginia, applauds the captain who, upon landing but before reaching the gate, stopped the plane she was on mid-tarmac and refused to move because one passenger, ignoring the flight attendants, was blithely moving about, collecting his luggage.

“If you don’t sit down, I’m not moving this plane,” she quotes the captain as saying. “I thought that was brilliant! The guy wasn’t happy but he sat down.”

Another time, she became sick on a plane, possibly from food poisoning, and needed a change of clothes. Flight attendants asked around the cabin. One passenger gave her pants, another a T-shirt. “And they knew they wouldn’t get them back,” she says.

So for all the depressing stories, it’s worth noting the heartening ones.

Like that of Mollie Hemingway, from Washington, D.C., who fondly recalls a flight attendant — travelling as a passenger, no less — that became her guardian angel on what seemed destined to be a flight from, well, a place with no angels.

Flying to Denver with her daughters, ages 1 and 2, Hemingway was stressed to the point of sobbing when her older child soiled her travel seat minutes after takeoff, meaning Mom had to balance two kids on her lap.

Changing diapers in the tiny bathroom was a challenge. And the sleep-deprived girls were melting down, “turning into crazed beings that kicked the seats in front of them,” Hemingway reports. The flight attendants were nowhere to be seen, until the off-duty attendant appeared, offering to take the baby.

“I practically threw the baby at her,” Hemingway says. “Later she exchanged seats so she could sit next to me and she helped me entertain the girls. I am so thankful for her help.”

© Associated Press

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