Stuffed Shirt Steps Up

Like many flight attendants, I have a tendency to lump airplane passengers into one of three distinct categories: The Frequent Flyers, The Hot Guys, and the mass of faceless walking F.A.R. violations we’ll call Everybody Else.  Very occasionally these will overlap, as in the case of the rare and exotic Hot Frequent Flyer Guy, and sometimes they will collide, such as the time that a Frequent Flyer made a crack to me about the low-riding basketball shorts on a spectacularly round-rumped Hot Guy and I shrugged and told him, “I’d hit that,” but for the most part, the passengers in each category settle onto the airplane with varying degrees of overhead bin drama and hew to a time-honored code of Expected Behavior.

I have a definite love/hate relationship with the Frequent Flyer.  On the one hand, they know the drill and bring few surprises.  They know where their suitcase fits and where it doesn’t, they often hang their own coats, and most of them understand Airplane Sign Language — I can raise an eyebrow at their phone and have it turned off, and when I jerk my chin at their empty wine glass, they hold their hand to where I should fill it or, if they have finished, they hand it back to me.  On the whole, the Frequent Flyer is a flight attendant’s favorite kind of passenger: Easy.

But I’m not gonna lie: it is also the Frequent Flyer that usually sets my eyes to rolling.  I have a tendency to look out into the First Class cabin and see Chicago in Winter: a blustery snow storm of white male windbags jockeying to assert their status and get the recognition they’ve got coming to them by hook or by crook; guys who can barely condescend to mutter their drink order, refuse to remove their headphones but become irate when they can’t hear you, and complain about the meal offerings for sport.  (One guy told me he wished he’d known that I was going to run out of the chicken entree selection before he’d gotten on the airplane, and I asked him why.  “Were you going to go up and down the terminal looking for a chicken breast to bring with you?”  He wanted badly to be affronted by my cheek, but eventually laughed and conceded that the pasta would be fine.)  It is easy for me, if I give my attitude free reign, to write off the Frequent Flyers as a surly bunch of social-climbing fusspots and to treat them, as a result, with a certain degree of professionally questionable disdain.

And then they get you: they catch you on a day when you’re tired or far from home or otherwise beginning to fray and surprise you.  This guy brings the crew a box of chocolate-covered mac nuts, this woman hands over a stack of hot ‘n’ fresh gossip magazines, and the wall between Us and Them shifts on its wobbly foundation.  On my last trip, my faith in humanity, or at least its frequently flying element, was restored by the simplest and yet sweetest of acts.  A single (or at least single-traveling) dad was sitting in First Class with his baby girl.  His style was pure Portlandia, right down to the plaid shirt, raggedy beard, and retro tortoise shell specs, setting him visually apart from the rest of the starched-white-shirt cabin which, it was easy enough for the flight attendants (this flight attendant, anyway) to assume, was looking down its collective nose at his boho style and the squirming bundle of squawk on his lap.  The slightest upset to the staid, Very Important Meeting feel of First Class is ill-tolerated by many of our passengers, and the potential for chaos and Cheerios Everywhere! clung to this guy ’til his name might as well have been Pig Pen.  These Men Are Annoyed — easy to diagnose, easy to disdain; another day, another dollar.

But the Universe never tires of teaching me lessons, especially if it’s the Same One over and over again.  Portlandia Dad gets up to use the bathroom sans Bundle of Joy, and questions are raised.  She was tiny, maybe nine months old — what had he done with her?  A quick peek into the aisle would have melted the most ice-capped of airborne hearts, for there she sat.  Happy as a clam on the expensively trousered lap of Business Jerk #1, Portlandia Dad’s seat mate, who was reading to her — with feeling, mind you, and funny faces to match — from what was obviously her favorite book like maybe he was home on the couch with his own little girl.  She was smiling, he was smiling, and if ever there was an airplane photo op, this was it.  I was dying to bust out my phone and summon “Cheese!” from both of them, but it would have cheapened the all-too-genuine moment.  Guy’s got a baby, Guy needs to go to the bathroom, Other Guy steps up just cuz it’s the thing to do.  He wasn’t trying to work anything, he wasn’t trying to be perceived any kind of way, he was just trying to read a little girl a story, in a help-a-brother-out spirit that we as inflight service professionals have long declared dead.  It was probably a small gesture in the Big Picture, but it had an impact on me.  I often need to be reminded to cut people some slack — to remember that nobody buys a plane ticket so that they can go out and violate a bunch of Federal Aviation Regulations (the seat belt sign, electronic devices) just for something to do.  Sometimes “passengers” are just people, and if you can stand back and let them, they’ll act like it.

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