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Coffee, tea or flee? JetBlue attendant's exit strategy serves crummy job right

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; C01

Steven Slater.

Rock. On.

The JetBlue flight attendant whose splendiferous wig-out on Monday involved an escape via an emergency exit slide has become a folk hero to his fellow stewards of the sky.

Also, to everyone.

"I've had that fantasy," says Sara Keagle, a flight attendant for 18 years. "He lived my fantasy. He is the Thelma and Louise of flight attendants."

It is a fantasy born of dealing with passengers who refuse to sit down, refuse to power down, refuse to simmer down. They want it their way, and they want it right now, and they want to waddle onto the aircraft with six carry-ons the size of freaking Stonehenge and pretend that it's all going to fit under the seat.

Uh-uh. We are going to put a stop to that nonsense, and we are going to call that stop The Slater.

The incident in question happened at the end of a Monday flight from Pittsburgh to New York, and the essential reported details are this: Slater got into a dispute with a passenger when the passenger ignored instructions involving an overhead luggage compartment. At one point, the passenger's luggage struck Slater on the head. Slater then got on the intercom, unleashed a mighty tirade ("I'm done! I quit!" according to one passenger's blogged account), deployed the plane's exit chute and slid onto the tarmac -- but not before stopping at the beverage cart to grab a beer.

He drove home, where he was arrested on charges of reckless endangerment and criminal mischief -- charges that could result in up to seven years in prison. He was suspended from duty on Tuesday and arraigned in a Queens courtroom, where a judge set $2,500 bail. His lawyer told the judge that Slater had been stressed over his ailing mother.

But Tuesday afternoon at Reagan National Airport, flight attendants were walking a little taller, smiling the secret smile of the righteously vindicated.

"Every single one of my friends said, 'Good for him!' " whispered an attendant wearing an American Airlines uniform who, like some others interviewed, declined to give her name, citing airline regulations and fear of losing her job. She has dealt with the cellphone arguments. The passenger bickering. She has pulled out the final threat: Do I need to call the captain? "You put on a smile and you treat them like children," says the former schoolteacher. Don't make her turn this plane around.

"Passengers can all be divided into four types," says another no-nonsense attendant who has whittled the chaos of airline travel into logical precision. The four types are:

A: All About Me

B: Business

C: Casual

D: Deer in Headlights

"A and D are the ones you have to look out for," the woman says. A's are obvious -- they're the ones who are demanding bottled water and a free snack box before the wheels go up. But never underestimate a D. Your typical D passenger, the spacey novice, is the one who is going to open the overhead bin and gently spread his overcoat down the length of the whole compartment. The D will not hear the sighs of annoyance from the other passengers, because the D will have already unwrapped his smelly sandwich and plugged his headphones into your seat's jack.

Incorrect, Passenger D. That move is incorrect.

Bobby Laurie, a San Francisco-based attendant reached via telephone, has dealt with more A's and D's than he cares to remember in his five years on the job, including one colossal A who swept his first-class meal onto Laurie's pants when he "didn't like the looks" of the dinner option. This is why, when Laurie speaks of Slater, his voice gets tremulous and overcome with glee.

"He took a stand for not only flight attendants but everyone" who has ever hated a job, says Laurie. "You always hold back. You always bite your tongue. You never actually say it. But he said it! He said it!"

Slater is reminiscent of Tuesday's other Internet darling, the administrative assistant who quit her job by sending a series of photographed messages written on a white board to everyone at her firm. The messages revealed that her boss, in addition to referring to her as a "Hot Piece of [expletive]," also dedicated nearly 20 hours a week to playing Farmville. (People are already speculating that it's a fake, but the joy it prompted was definitely real.)

In a way, the only unique aspect of Slater's amazing exit fantasy is the flight vocabulary -- the slide, the beverage cart, the overhead bins. Every other part of his Buh-Bye looks like the one we all dream of at our own cruddy jobs.

"I worked in the past for a legacy airline that had" never treated its employees particularly well, says Laurie. He consoled himself by planning his escape and how he would leave it all behind. "My last day on the job I was going to slide to freedom. Hit that slide and ride it alllll the way to freedom."

Hit that slide. Soon the phrase will become this generation's "blow this popsicle stand"; someone will create an entry on UrbanDictionary.com.

Oh wait. Someone just did. "Hit the slide: To quit one's job in a truly stunning fashion."

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