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Passengers Behaving Badly

August 12, 2010

Stephen Slater, THE (former?) JetBlue Flight Attendant

I simply can’t not talk about it. This is, after all, a travel blog and the biggest travel-related story of the week? JetBlue flight attendant Stephen Slater encounters rude, uncompliant passenger, gets hit in the head with her luggage, grabs the intercom and tells her (and others in the process) to eff off, grabs a beer from the beverage cart, deploys the emergency exit, slides off into the sunset, and becomes a folk hero in the process.

The outpouring of sympathy for Slater across the internet in article comments, blogs, and on Facebook, has demonstrated that this story has struck a nerve, one that has been thrumming beneath the surface for a while now. USA Today Travel touched on it a few weeks ago when it asked the question “Have travelers become ruder over the years?” The answer? A resounding yes.

About six years ago, I was flying from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago for a friend’s wedding. I boarded the airplane and found my seat next to a man who seemed engrossed in whatever he was doing, so I took my seat and relaxed into it. I didn’t notice the flight attendant approach from behind moments later to ask my neighbor if he would be willing to give up his seat to another passenger whose leg was in a cast and who needed the space afforded by the bulkhead aisle seat. Good soul that he was, he acquiesced.

I thought nothing of it, expecting to find a pimple-faced teen or a portly woman, breathless and nosy, as my new neighbor. As a solo traveler and a single woman, my luck at securing interesting and attractive seatmates was dismal—I usually get stuck with chatty Cathies, bratty kids, octogenarians on oxygen, or businessmen engrossed in their work, so I almost fell out of my chair when *he* hobbled toward me on crutches. He was tall and handsome, swarthy and dark, with a slight accent and closely-cropped hair graying at the temples. I nearly swooned in my seat. It seemed my luck was changing.

After takeoff, we began chatting. He had broken his leg in an accident. The passage of time has erased my memory of precisely what the accident was, but in my imagination it must have been something glamorous and sexy, like a waterskiing accident off Miami Beach or something like that. Our conversation deepened as time passed. He was the marketing director for a food services company with offices in Chicago and he was returning home after a Florida vacation. In his mid-thirties, he was born abroad to multinational parents and spoke six—six!—languages. Soon we were having intelligent, effortless conversation about life. The world. Culture. Politics. Damned near hyperventilation, I could hardly breathe. Had I finally met my Mr. Right?

Then it happened.

The male passenger sitting across from us in the aisle seat had been ordering drinks for the better part of the flight and in retrospect, he was probably already slight soused when he boarded the plane. His eyes were glazed and red and his hand unsteady when he turned toward us and touched my oh-so-sexy neighbor on the knee and asked the question that would doom the rest of the flight and any hope for a future between me and “Mr Right.”

“Do you want to see my chicken?”

Inwardly, as I prayed that his “chicken” wasn’t actually a nickname for a certain body part, he reached down and whipped it out. Secured in a paper shopping sack at his feet was….a chicken. Not a live chicken, but a chicken nonetheless. It was a—I don’t know how to describe it. It was a replica of a chicken, chicken-sized, with a chicken head, a chicken beak, and chicken feathers and when he pressed a button, it let out a soft cluck and laid an egg. Mr. Right and I chuckled nervously at the spectacle which, as I know now, was the wrong thing to do. Our tepid, confused laughter was all the permission he needed. He now had an audience.

I remember being supremely confused. What was this seemingly harmless middle-aged man doing with such a bizarre object? Well-dressed in a suit and balding with a fringe of gray hair around his ears, he seemed like someone who was decent and well-respected but apparently the large volume of alcohol he had been ingesting changed all that. He insisted on commanding our attention with egg-laying entertainments interjected with jokes and stories with no punch line and no point. I could tell that Mr. Right was beginning to get annoyed but he kept his cool. As the flight progressed, the chicken man continued to drink and his behavior become rowdier, his voice louder, and his inhibitions? Gone.

His rude and unseemly behavior reached a turning point when, as a flight attendant passed by, he withdrew a pen from his pocket and pretended to stab her in the back, his mouth twisted into a comical yet cruel smirk, his eyes wide and wild. It was so strange! Mr. Right pleaded with him to cease and desist. In a post-September 11th world we had become keenly sensitive to this pretense of violence onboard an aircraft. The chicken man could sense that we had tired of his antics so he decided to turn his attention to a fresher audience.

Ringing for the flight attendant, he ordered yet another drink. Mr. Right suggested that perhaps he’d already had too much and attempted to dissuade the attendant from serving an already inebriated passenger, going so far as to take the drink away from the man. If memory serves, my conscientious neighbor spent the better part of the rest of the flight attempting to persuade the chicken man that another drink was the worst possible idea, a noble but futile venture.

Everything that happened afterwards is a blur. Perhaps I fell asleep or maybe Mr. Right had become so annoyed by the chicken man’s antics that he spent the rest of the flight in silence. I don’t know. All I do know is the magic was gone. Mr. Right and I didn’t speak again except for mumbled goodbyes as we disembarked. As for the chicken man? Who knows.

What’s your best (read–worst) “passengers behaving badly” story?

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