Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Heroes Who Pass Out Snacks

Heroes who pass out snacks By Meghan Daum August 6, 2005 TO ANYONE WHO'S ever smirked, snapped, whined, yelled or (you know who you are) thrown things at a flight attendant, let's consider this: Last Tuesday, the cabin crew of Air France Flight 358 evacuated all 297 passengers after a crash landing in Toronto. They did this in less than two minutes. Moments later, the plane burst into flames. I know what you're thinking: "If they can get 300 people off in under two minutes, why does it take 45 minutes to board a plane?" As in all things air travel-related, the lame jokes abound. ("I tried to jump down the slide, but they stopped me because the seat-belt sign was on!") But maybe seeing 10 flight attendants save about 300 lives in less time than it took to watch the safety demonstration will put an end to the jokes. It's been a long time coming. Somehow, passengers have been lulled into thinking that flight attendants are there primarily to serve as waiters and arbiters of luggage space. But accidents have a way of reducing inconveniences like pillow shortages and paltry snacks to shamefully petty concerns. Several years ago, while researching a magazine article about the "secret world of flight attendants," I spent a week at the flight attendant training school of a major airline. Granted, this was three years before 9/11, back when the combination of dreary mundanity and diminishing leg room had left people with about as much respect for air travel as they had for pre-owned Yugos. "Air rage" was the coinage of the day, and incidents of violence against airline personnel had risen dramatically. I visited the school because I was a smug young journalist working for a smug glossy magazine and I was hoping for some salacious details about a profession that had fascinated the public since the early days of commercial flight. Since airline industry deregulation in 1978, the archetypal sex-kitten stewardess made famous by books such as the 1960s-era "Coffee, Tea or Me" had devolved into a haggard assortment of short-tempered corporate drones. The heyday of air travel, when flight attendants were required to be female, slim, unmarried and possessed of the uncanny ability to cook eggs to order during turbulence, was long gone. But my assignment was doomed. The courses I observed had less to do with applying makeup and charming businessmen than with something far less sensational: safety. The drills went on and on and on. We practiced verbal instructions until we could recite them like Beatles lyrics. We rehearsed procedures until every exit door and window, every inflatable slide and alarm bell felt as familiar as the dashboard controls on a car we'd owned for a decade. I can still remember the sensation of opening the hatch of the exit window in the cabin simulator. I can still hear the siren and the exact wording of the evacuation commands for the slides. "Keep your feet together, jump into the slide," the students yelled until they were hoarse. I watched as they learned how to inflate rafts. I ran around the simulator with them as they enacted crash after crash, knowing full well that no matter how intensive the training, nothing but focus and sheer guts would see them through the real thing. Among the other things I learned about flight attendants was that their starting salaries could be as low as $15,000 a year. They regularly have to work 14-hour days but are often paid for only eight hours. Most have to buy their own uniforms for hundreds of dollars. That means they often have only one, which they have to wash out in hotel sinks. Air France rightfully praised the crew of Flight 358 for its professionalism. But it's the flying public that needs to recognize such contributions. Airline deregulation, which slashed prices along with amenities, legroom and salaries, caused many of us to forget our manners. Then Sept. 11 introduced a narrative that suggested the fates of airliners lay in the hands of passengers, whether terrorists or heroes. But, as we learned on Tuesday, accidents still occur and we still rely on those who are trained to protect us from potentially tragic outcomes. On airplanes, it so happens that these are the same people who pass out the inedible food and tell us when our bags won't fit overhead. But we've seen they can do a lot more than that. Let's be polite. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- MEGHAN DAUM is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles.

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