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A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet
By Elliott Hester
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2001 Elliott Hester
All rights reserved.
Something Smelly in the Air
Speed and altitude notwithstanding, flying in a commercial jet is not much different than riding in a Greyhound bus. You pay a higher-than- expected round-trip fare, inch sideways down a narrow aisle, toss your carry-on in the overhead, squeeze into a tiny seat next to a stranger whose ass is as wide and unruly as the Australian outback, then try to read, sleep, or stare out the window until you pull into the terminal in Boise or Detroit. Despite advertising campaigns that suggest a level of comfort and attention one might expect aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, air travel, in its purest main-cabin form, is little more than public transportation. Greyhound at thirty thousand feet. Amtrak with wings.
As with most forms of public transportation, your travel experience is affected as much by the staff as the passengers sitting near you. At times, your seatmates can have an even greater impact. We've all sat next to someone who talked until our eardrums bled, who laughed obnoxiously while watching the in-flight movie or yammered on the telephone until we harbored thoughts of homicide. We've all endured the frequent-flying Goober who sucks his teeth, clips his dirty toenails (toenail shrapnel can be as foul as it is deadly), picks his nose unmercifully, or falls asleep and either drools from one corner of his mouth or snores with the vigor of a drunken wildebeest.
The more unfortunate among us have suffered worse. On one crowded flight or another, I've been victimized by flatulence — the stealthy, gaseous, repeated break of wind from a businessman who should never have eaten that burrito. An SBD (silent but deadly) can be a pungent emission, but it's far more civilized than the eye-opening trumpet blast from less conscientious cheeks.
Flatulence, be it an SBD or a blaring tribute to Herb Alpert, is as short-lived as the crossing of a garbage truck at a busy intersection. You can wait for the pungency to pass (pun intended). You can breathe through your mouth for a little while. Or you can live in denial, like many passengers, pretending you can't smell a thing. But if your seatmate is suffering from a different kind of body odor, if the stench of dirty dishrags and rotten eggs seeps from his armpits like a noxious gas, you might find yourself praying for a cabin depressurization — just so the oxygen masks will drop.
Not long ago, as our Boeing 767 was ready to depart JFK for Paris, a couple of peevish passengers confronted me and my crew. "We refuse to fly under these conditions," said a man approaching with his wife. Like a growing number of middle-aged American travelers, they were dressed in brightly colored sweat suits, brand new Nike athletic shoes and fanny packs that hung from their waists like decorative sashes. It wasn't clear whether they were preparing to fly to Paris or work as road monitors at the New York Marathon.
The purser turned to address them. "What conditions?" she asked.
"It's that group of rowdy Frenchmen," he replied. "They ... they ..." The man couldn't seem to find the right words so his wife interjected. "They stink!" she said, with a sneer.
The purser and I exchanged a glance and went back to investigate. Sure enough, as soon as we approached the middle of the main cabin, we stopped dead in our tracks and gagged. The funk was alive. It came at us like a mugger in broad daylight. Bold. Brutal. Uncompromising. The stench of old gym shoes and exotic cheese. The reek of bottled sweat.
The purser's face became a rictus of horror. Looking at her, one would think she had just walked into her bedroom to find her husband in bed with another woman, or perhaps another man. Had she been a new flight attendant on probation, a look like that could have easily gotten her fired. "Inappropriate facial expression," that's what the company calls it. (I know of one probationary flight attendant who lost her job because she rolled her eyes after a passenger made a sexist remark.)
Inappropriate looks and all, the crew huddled in the first-class galley, trying to figure out what to do. Like reluctant bloodhounds, the purser and I had traced the stench to a cluster of fifteen or twenty Frenchmen. They were laborers: grim-faced, rough-handed, dressed in worn jeans and work boots as if they'd just finished a six-week stint on an oil rig. They spoke easily among themselves as if emitting the redolence of tulips instead of moldy Gouda cheese.
The two passengers in sweat suits weren't the only ones who were offended. During my very brief stay in the coach cabin, I noticed many tortured faces. Several victims blinked at me as if sending a Morse Code plea for help. An elderly woman fanned her frowning face with an in-flight magazine. A man coughed repeatedly into his fist and threw a dirty look my way. Others cursed beneath their breath. A few passengers turned their heads or pinched their nostrils — one guy even draped his head with a blanket. They tried anything to escape the inescapable aroma of hard-working Frenchmen who smelled as if they hadn't bathed since Bastille Day.
Inside our flight attendant manual — the Bible of rules, regulations and step-by-step procedures that govern every activity from passenger boarding to emergency evacuations — there is a section dedicated to "Passenger Acceptance." Here, the airline provides a list of those who are forbidden on an aircraft: barefoot passengers; infants less than a week old (unless their parents have a physician's note giving approval to fly); intoxicated passengers; those with communicable diseases; those who are clothed in such a way as to offend other passengers; violent, obnoxious and rowdy passengers; anyone carrying an unauthorized firearm — concealed or otherwise. The list goes on and on.
About halfway down the no-go list, somewhere between handcuffed criminals who refuse to cooperate with their escort, and people who appear to be under the influence of drugs, there's an entry that came in handy on the JFK-Paris flight. It says the airline reserves the right to refuse passage to anyone with an offensive body odor. No joke. The words are right there, written in black and white. If the ghastly smell is the result of a physical handicap or disability, the passenger is allowed onboard and his fellow voyagers will simply have to grin and bear it. But if someone stinks because of ineffective or nonexistent personal hygiene, if that someone could use a quadruple swipe of Right Guard or a dusting of Dr. Scholl's, the airline has the right to dismiss him on the spot — even if religious or cultural beliefs are cited for the offense.
Luckily, I do not speak French. Once the crew came up with a strategy, one of several French-speaking flight attendants was dispatched to the main cabin. In a very low voice, she told a couple of guys in the group that passengers were complaining about their parfum. The offending men were offended, of course. But not as much as a plane full of pinched-nosed passengers. The accused threw their hands in the air and mumbled in French about the inherent stupidity of Americans (the French-speaking flight attendant made us aware of this later). But when they were told the plane would not leave until the smell had been eliminated, they rose like troopers and marched to the jet bridge where a quick-thinking gate agent had amassed twenty bars of soap and an assortment of underarm deodorant. When the men returned from an airport bathroom, smelling fresh as a dirty street hosed down from the night before, the plane took off. The flight was about fifteen minutes late — a delay that most passengers appreciated.
It's not always so easy to get putrid passengers to freshen up, however. Once, while boarding a flight from Caracas to Miami, I caught the foul stench of a couple whose collective funk could fuel the warhead of a nuclear stink bomb. While loading oven racks in the galley of a 757, I looked up from a cluster of half-frozen chicken dinners and noticed two passengers moving toward me down the aisle. They were the first to board. The fact that no passengers followed was not unusual. Perhaps they were pre-boards, I thought. Perhaps age or physical disability made it necessary for them to come aboard ahead of everyone else. But they were in their early thirties and showed no apparent signs of disability. There were no children with them, either.
The reason no one followed, I soon discovered, was that both of them stank to high heaven.
First, I noticed a slight shift in air quality, as if the door to the Detroit Lion's locker room had opened just a crack. As they approached, the door flew wide open and I staggered backward as if I'd been shot. Suddenly, I was a small boy inhaling a big-city pile of doggie doo. A police diver hit by a pungent stench before splashing into a swamp in search of decomposing bodies. My head ached. My nostrils burned. I thought I was going to wither and die.
By the time I came out of the lavatory the two passengers had settled into seats 30-A and 30-B. Several pissed-off passengers were waiting for me in the galley. They bombarded me with threats: "You better do something right now, goddammit!" and "I paid too much money to sit next to these pigs." But the most telling comment came from a man who spoke in a slow Southern accent. He shook his head, sucked his teeth and said: "Smells like somethin' crawled up their asses and died."
I snatched the interphone and conferred with the purser. She told me to tell the couple to come to the front of the aircraft. I argued, insisting that dirty work like this falls under the domain of purser duty. "You're in charge of the cabin," I said. "This is why you guys get extra pay." But the purser was busy with another problem in first class. Besides, the galley was filling with passengers trying to escape the fallout. If I stalled any longer we might have a riot on our hands.
With all the composure I could muster, I approached the aroma-challenged (is that the politically correct term?) couple. I held my breath, speaking from a constricted diaphragm that made my voice sound hoarse. It was like trying to speak after inhaling a joint when you didn't want the smoke to escape. "Excuse me folks," I said. "But ahhh ... the purser ... she ahhh ... she needs to speak with you in the front of the aircraft."
"The who?" the man asked.
"The purser. She's the flight attendant in charge of the cabin." Aside from the caustic odor, they seemed like pleasant people. They were dressed in clean casual clothes and smiled as I spoke.
"What does she want?" he said.
"She wants to ... well ... It's like this ..." I was running out of air so I threw caution to the stench and blurted out the truth. "To be perfectly blunt, sir, the passengers are complaining ... they say your body odor is offensive ... you need to speak to the purser and try to rectify the problem."
Like a swimmer who'd been under a few seconds too long, I took a huge gulp of air and immediately wished I hadn't. The couple exchanged a look and threw at me a gaze that could have melted steel.
"We are not moving!" the man said defiantly.
After a visit from the gate agent and the captain, after we threatened to call airport security, after impatience nearly gave rise to a passenger revolt, the couple finally grabbed their bags and walked to the front of the aircraft, leaving thirty rows of gagging humanity in their wake. Before leaving the airplane, however, they bestowed upon us a parting comment. The final insult voiced by drunks, obnoxious jerks, and yes, the indelibly stinky — as they are tossed from an aircraft: "We're never flying this airline again."
Payback for a Condescending Jerk
Dressed in black, ponytail dangling imperiously from behind his upturned head, he sauntered to his first-class seat with the unspoken arrogance of a passenger who had already arrived. He was rife with self-importance, the quintessential traveler with an attitude. But an hour after takeoff he would be whimpering like a child, cradled in my reluctant embrace.
Allow me to explain.
I'm not the type of flight attendant portrayed in television commercials. For one thing, I'm a man. You'll rarely see a male attendant fluffing up some businessman's pillow or pulling a blanket to his chin while sappy theme music lifts the hearts and tugs at the purse strings of 10 million viewers. Tall, black and bald, a little rough around the edges, I'm the kind of guy you'd expect to see scoring touchdowns for the Jets, instead of serving chicken and beef inside of them. As is the case with the passenger dressed in black, appearance can sometimes belie the man.
Bound for Miami from Chicago, our 727 carried fewer than fifty passengers in the main cabin and only three in first class. The service would be completed in no time. A piece of cake. Or so I thought.
Ensconced in a vast leather seat that could scarcely contain his ego, the man in black snickered pretentiously into the in-flight telephone. He crossed his stockinged feet on the bulkhead and bragged about his self-owned business to the unreceptive couple across the aisle. He made sexual innuendoes to the female flight attendant who was assigned to work first class. Her vexation prompted an interphone call. I picked up in the aft galley and listened while she recounted his behavior and asked for my support.
The moment I left my position in the aft galley, the aircraft began to encounter "light" turbulence. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) — the pilot handbook of flight information and procedures developed by the Federal Aviation Administration — lists four specific categories of turbulence (light, moderate, severe, and extreme) and the resulting conditions that occur inside the airplane.
During light turbulence, "occupants may feel a slight strain against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects may be displaced slightly, food service may be conducted and little or no difficulty is encountered in walking."
In response to her call for backup, I teetered up the aisle, entered the first-class cabin and observed the man in black. He was reclining luxuriously in seat 3-A. One hand absently preened his glossy ponytail, the other held a full glass of champagne. Noting that his seat belt was unfastened, even though the "fasten seat belt" sign was illuminated, I politely asked him to buckle up. He threw at me a look that was both hostile and dismayed. How dare you instruct me, the look said. I am a first-class passenger, a man to be regarded, the look said. He turned his head away, dismissing my presence and my request. His seat belt was still unfastened when I left.
About halfway through the main-cabin dinner service, the turbulence intensified. There was a thunderstorm ahead, and apparently no way to steer completely clear of it. The aircraft began vibrating in harsh, rhythmic thumps, as if it were a speed boat traversing a choppy sea. Drinks spilled. Meal trays fell to the floor. A woman shrieked and then fell silent. One male passenger tightened his seat belt and stared at me wide-eyed like a foot soldier awaiting the lieutenant's command. (During moments like these, even the most condescending passenger will bestow upon flight attendants a level of respect that is usually reserved for priests and emergency room practitioners.)
The captain's voice crackled over the P.A. system instructing flight attendants to suspend the meal service — we had progressed to "moderate" turbulence. During this condition AIM says: "Occupants feel definite strains against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects are dislodged. Food service and walking are difficult."
With the help of another flight attendant, I moved a wobbling two- hundred-pound liquor cart and stowed it in the aft galley. Less than ten seconds after strapping into my jump seat, the interphone rang again. With an edge of panic in her voice, the first-class attendant asked me to come up. The esteemed man in black needed assistance.
I climbed out of my seat harness and made the long, arduous trek to first class. I walked with my feet spread wide to provide better balance — a technique flight attendants pick up after a few weeks on the job. It's sort of like walking on a patch of ice that moves left to right and up and down while you try not to fall in a passenger's lap. Which brings me to a question that has caused concern since the first flight attendants were hurled at the heavens. If the seat belt sign is illuminated during turbulence — an indication that it's dangerous for anyone to walk around the cabin — why are flight attendants required to walk up and down the aisle to make a safety check? Are we immune to midair turbulence that might splatter ordinary passengers against the ceiling? Were we hired because of some immunity to the forces of gravity? As I staggered toward the first-class cabin to help out Mr. Asshole, the paradox occupied my thoughts.
Excerpted from Plane Insanity by Elliott Hester. Copyright © 2001 Elliott Hester. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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