Come fly the polite skies

George Hobica, December 19, 2009
Fares from Washington DC:

    Can’t we all just get along up in the air? Can’t we be just a little—no, make that a lot—more polite?

    Consider: I was sitting in first class on a recent flight (yes, I used miles to upgrade) and the guy next to me flagged down a passing flight attendant by shaking his half empty highball glass at her. “More ice!” he bellowed. To which she replied, rather sweetly under the circumstances, “What’s the magic word!” To which he more or less replied, “Don’t try to teach me manners, just get me more ice.” (I mean, really, can you believe this jerk? What is it with some airline passengers thinking they’re grand poobahs just because they bought a $200 airfare and upgraded it with miles?)  So the flight attendant answered him, “Sir, the ice is in the galley. Get it yourself.” If I didn’t have to sit next to this bozo for another two hours, I would have shouted out "woo hoo!"  And had I been she, I would have omitted the “sir.'

    My seat mate was lucky that all he got was a well-deserved come-uppance. John Reed, a customer on American Airlines flight 614 from Sacramento to Dallas on December 6, had a less pleasant encounter with a flight attendant. As reported extensively in the blogosphere, Mr. Reed, a first class passenger with executive platinum frequent flyer status, asked a flight attendant for a glass of orange juice, was excoriated for doing so (“I guess you don’t know how this works,” she reportedly told him), and ended up getting a written FAA misconduct notification from the pilot. Reed and his fellow first class passengers all insist that the flight attendant was completely out of line and perhaps mentally unstable, and American has issued an apology to all those affected.

    Of course we weren’t on that flight, so we don’t know whether or not Reed used the magic word when asking for his OJ, but even if he didn’t, by all accounts the flight attendant’s behavior was bizarre and inexcusable. 

    Even so, I often find the rudeness of airline passengers equally bizarre. When asked, “Can I get you something to drink sir (or ma’am)” by a flight attendant (or by a waiter for that matter), it is not acceptable to bark out “Coke” without looking up from your Sudoku. It’s not acceptable in the air, and frankly, it’s not acceptable on the ground, either. But especially not in the air. Flight attendants are trained to save your life if there’s an incident. Flying is stressful for all concerned. We're stuck together in an aluminum can, sometimes for six hours or more. This is not a flying McDonald's.

    And it is not acceptable when handed your beverage to skip the “thank you.” You are not the Sultan of Siam. She is not your girl. I think flyers should all take a lesson from my mother, who, when we flew together, laid down certain rules of decorum. "Georgie," she would remind me near the end of each flight, "when we leave the plane you are to say thank you to the pilot and stewardesses." To this day, I never fail to do so.

    Not that all the politeness in the world will save you from the wrath of a flight attendant gone bonkers, and times have changed drastically since my first transcontinental flight with mom, on a TWA 707, as a bowtie-clad 10 year old.

    On that flight, my mother suggested I help the stewardesses clear the meal trays, which task I gamely performed (after all, one of them had pinned plastic wings on my blazer, so I was crew, right?). In recognition of my valorous service, one of the stews pinched my chubby little cheek and said, “Oh what a nice little boy you are.” And then I got to ride up with the pilots for a thrilling half hour. As I said, things have changed.

    Fast forward to a flight a few years ago when I was sitting in the back of a Continental Airlines 737 waiting in vain for a meal tray to be removed. Needing a lav visit, I got up and placed the tray on an empty counter in the galley, where the flight attendants were busy gabbing away about whatever. “You can’t put that there!” one of them barked at me. Shell-shocked, but ignoring her, I went into the loo and upon emerging looked her in the eye and said, “You know, you could have said that a bit more politely.” She, indignantly: “I wasn’t impolite.” Me, equally indignant: “Oh yes you were, and you know it.” Luckily I guess, I didn’t get one of those FAA warning letters, but while I’m all for politesse in the skies, modern airline travel is fraught enough as it is, and it does take two to maintain a civil atmosphere.

    I’m willing to do my part. I wish more people were willing to do theirs.