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. Continue reading

Things’ll Be Great

As we all know, that Petula Clark was no dummy.  Easy and unfettered access to hot guys roaming the streets at lunch hour is not necessarily a requirement for an enjoyable layover, but it never hurts, and is definitely one of the major benefits of staying downtown vs. at some airport Hilton. Fine guys in the street are the only reason that anybody goes to Sydney (deny it, flight attendants, if you dare), but domestically, where the flight time (if not always the duty day) is much shorter, a Downtown Layover is a rare and coveted thing and one of the few things for which every flight attendant is willing to fight.

See, when our airline was in bankruptcy, they slashed and burned many of our favorite sections of our contract in the name of Cost Savings (figuring that calling it Executive Bonus Enhancement would be harder for the court to publicly endorse, although that is precisely where the “savings” went).  Before that, we went downtown on any layover over 13 hours, where shops, restaurants, museums, and yeah, even the hot locals were just steps from the hotel lobby.  Now we have to be in town at least 20 hours before the company is required to put us downtown (or in a “downtown-like location”).  For a layover shorter than 20 hours (up to, and often exasperatingly including, those of 19 hours and 59 minutes), the company can put us up in an airport hotel, where nothing is steps from the hotel lobby and you usually have a direct view from your room of the terminal, including a very literal view of The Horse You Rode In On, lest the company’s Screw You inherent in a long airport layover be lost.

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He was flirting with Me!

The spectre of the Summer of 2000, during which the pilots and (mis)management team of our airline locked horns in a labor dispute that made a mockery of our daily operation and nearly flattened the airline, still haunts the memory of anyone who was subjected to its capricious whim.  It was a summer of week-long “three-day” trips; of “Chicago” layovers at hotels in Indiana and Wisconsin; of sitting on the tarmac on a hot 727 for longer than it would have taken to fly to your destination and then returning to the gate in order to cancel.  Waiting in line at the Crew Desk for reassignment, flight attendants lay down with pillows and blankets and slept, sometimes through the night.  We encountered almost nothing but irate people, passengers and coworkers alike.  There was ranting and crying and probably more passing out than was strictly necessary, but not a lot of fellowship and scarcely any Goodwill toward Man.

Heading home from one such trip, on like Day Five of a Three-Day, I worked with my friend Phoebe.  A perky, married blonde with a pixie haircut, she presented a squeaky-clean, Olivia Newton-John image that made her hilarious tales of loving and leaving a string of smitten pilots that much more scandalous.  She got hit on everywhere we went, and it was quite natural for her to assume that the young, single dad traveling with his mother and son was flirting with her.  All smiles and shamelessly suave, he was definitely flirting with somebody, and the presence of the kid did rather hint at a preference for women; he had obviously been with at least one.

But he was awfully friendly, and something of a winker.  He was definitely flirty with Phoebe, it’s not like she was imagining things, but he was laying it on pretty thick with me, too.  And so, bored, cranky, and too long away from home, we naturally turned it into a competition.  “He’s flirting with me!” she would insist.

“You’re dreaming!” I would reply, eyes rolling.  “He’s obviously gay.”

“Right.  And I’m dreaming?”  And so on.

As if this guy was anything worth fighting over.  He’d gotten on the plane in his undershirt, for Pete’s sake — a tight, white tank top that clung to his wiry frame and kept few olfactory secrets.  His skin was rough and over-tanned, his hair floppy and overgrown, and he had the teeth of someone who maybe snacked on gravel instead of popcorn.  The overall effect was that of someone who had driven to the airport in his home.

But he was inordinately charming; perhaps the only passenger of that entire summer to display any manners whatever.  He smiled.  He joked.  He was sweet with his son and funny with us.  He insisted on eye contact, and the spark in his eye jumped into mine, warming me just the littlest bit.  And it wasn’t an act, at least not completely.  You could tell he was a genuine feel-good guy, ‘cause even at six, his son was the same way.  From deep within his window seat, the kid shouted out questions and play-by-play observations as only a six-year-old can, eager to befriend both Phoebe and me.

“We’re going to San Francisco cuz it’s my birthday!” he declared as we passed by his row of seats, each trying to look our cutest while picking up trash for the hundredth time.

I stopped, as much to bask in Dad’s smile for Phoebe’s benefit as to ask, “Oh yeah?  When’s your birthday?”

“Saturday!” he said, so proud.

“No way.” I said.  And then, because it happened to be true, I winked at the dad and said, “Saturday’s my birthday, too!”

“Really?” asked the incredulous Junior.

“Really,” I said.

“Really?” asked Dad, face alight.  And Phoebe, eyebrow raised.

“Really!” I affirmed, brandishing as proof the airline ID badge emblazoned with my date of birth.

Dad jumped out of his seat and into the aisle, turning his back on Phoebe to put his hands on my shoulders.  To my great surprise, in front of his son, his mother, and a planeload of disgruntled strangers, he planted one smack on my mouth.  It was a good kiss, too: hot and strong; I stumbled when he pulled away, my startled lips abuzz.

“An early birthday present,” he explained, sitting back down.

Phoebe had turned and stalked away.  Gracious even in defeat, I could tell by the way she was shaking her head that she was laughing.