Elliott Hester's Plane Insanity

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Customer service is very important to me. That's why I love Las Vegas so much. That town has raised customer service to an art form. There's a whole class of professionals in the hospitality industry there known as "customer relations managers," and these people know how to keep customers coming back for more. They make it a point to know your favorite colors, whether or not you like onions on your cheeseburgers, what brands of booze and cigarettes you favor, all to cater to your every whim before you can think to ask. They even make a point of ascertaining important dates in your life, like your birthday or your wedding anniversary, so the hotel/casino can call you up a couple of weeks in advance and offer you a complimentary room for a few nights.

This customer service fixation of mine is why I refuse to do business with AOL Time Warner. That company consistently treats its customers like shit. The attitude from the top down is one of "If you don't like it, why don't you take your business elsewhere?" It would be one thing if they were actually offering some kind of premium commodity, but AOL is unquestionably the very worst ISP available, and Time Warner Cable is legendary for frequent outages, lousy service and shitty billing practices. They're a lot like Bell Atlantic, whose customer-abuse track record became so notorious that they had to change their name to Verizon in an attempt to shake off the stench. No such luck, alas: a monkey in a silk suit is still a monkey.

But by far the very worst offenders when it comes to customer abuse are the airlines. The airlines are about as popular as eye snot. I can walk into a strange bar anywhere in this country and strike up a conversation with anyone about airline horror stories. They must hire their managers based on how unpleasant they are. The unmitigated gall of airline management extends well beyond the airports and boardrooms.

My very best airline story actually takes place at the Big Apple Circus. In the fall of 1997 I was working security detail for the BAC during their annual October-to-January run at Lincoln Center. This is where Big Apple makes most of its money: the annual fundraising gala is held there, with its pricey tickets and fancy catering, the New Year's Eve show is always a big draw and is also a pretty expensive night out, and there are a number of "tent sales," corporate-sponsored events in which a company or a charity purchases a whole performance and distributes the tickets as they will.

As it happened, Northwest Airlines bought the tent for a performance in late autumn. The artistic and technical divisions of the BAC, headquartered on the lot itself, are well known for their expertise and discipline under adverse conditions. The business aspect of the enterprise, based in an opulent suite of offices on 8th Ave., is slipperier than six eels fucking in a bucket of snot and as useless as a two-peckered billy goat wearing boxing gloves. Some bright light in the office acceded to Northwest Airlines' insistence on printing up their own tickets to this show they'd purchased, and the venal swine in charge at Northwest overbooked the big top. They distributed 300 more tickets than there were seats, to their own employees. To make matters worse, then-President Clinton was in town, fucking up traffic in all directions, and it was sleeting heavily, great horrible gobs of slush falling out of the sky. It's bad enough to overbook a flight: I've been bumped myself, it's inconvenient, but if you complain about it in an effective manner you can usually get some kind of upgrade or a free ticket or something. But overbooking a circus tent results in a whole other problem, namely 300 people standing in a hideous late-autumn ice storm after having driven in from Jersey or God knows where with the kids getting all antsy and cold and needing to pee and starting to whine.

It was my job to keep order at the front gate. I could have sat in my little heated security booth and just kept the gate locked, but I figured it would be better if I stood in the sleet with these people and explained to them that the Big Apple Circus was not at fault here, which I did. I had just about defused the situation and gotten tempers back in their boxes when this insouciant little prick from Northwest, who looked like Porky Pig in a suit, came charging down the midway and started yelling that everybody should just shut up and take their medicine, adding, "After all, you got the tickets for free, didn't you?" That did it. The crowd surged forward, pushing open the gate and began to storm the midway. I stood alone against the mob and informed them that while I was very sorry about their situation and that horrible little man's comments, I would have no recourse but to call the NYPD and file all appropriate charges against any and all parties inside the gate. That stopped them, and the appearance of Jimbo and Tater and a few other monsters from the crew at my back served to convince the mob to retreat. The crowd began to disperse, and I informed my colleagues that it might be a nice idea to keep Porky Pig away from me, as I had a powerful urge to push him down into the slush and jam a pen into his right ear.

It stands to reason that a company that treats its customers badly is probably going to treat its employees badly. Elliott Hester reveals some of the abuses heaped upon flight attendants by their employers in his very funny Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet (St. Martin's Press, 236 pages, $23.95). But his best material has to do with the antics of the passengers. The book is a series of twisted anecdotes loosely organized around several basic themes. It is no surprise that alcohol is a major factor in most of the more colorful incidents that Hester recounts for us. The mellowest and most enjoyable flight I ever took was back in the 80s, just before they banned smoking. I was making a jump to California in one of the budget carriers; I believe it may have been US Air. It was a late-night flight, and the plane was full of Deadheads en route to some sort of concert or festival. As soon as the "no-smoking" light went out, these wonderful kids whipped out joints, hash pipes, bongs and all manner of paraphernalia and proceeded to smoke out the whole plane. The flight attendants got a little nervous at first, but soon realized that resistance would be futile and besides, everyone was just getting increasingly mellow, so why create a scene?

Hester has some choice stories involving some of the more bizarre flight crew antics he's witnessed over the years. Apparently quite a bit of wild sex goes on in airplanes. I'll have to pay more attention in the future, because I've never gotten laid on a plane and it's got to be better than sitting through some of the crap that passes for filmed entertainment these days.

Some of the more gruesome stories involve no intoxicants or sex acts at all, as these examples illustrate: "While a female flight attendant was serving food from the meal cart, a female passenger thrust a small bundle of trash toward her. 'Take this,' the passenger demanded. Realizing that the trash was actually a used baby diaper, the attendant instructed the passenger to take it to the lavatory herself and dispose of it. 'No,' the passenger replied. 'You take it!' The attendant explained that she couldn't dispose of the dirty diaper because she was serving food?handling the diaper would be unsanitary. But that wasn't a good enough answer for the passenger. Angered by her refusal, the passenger hurled the diaper at the flight attendant. It struck her square in the head, depositing chunks of baby dung that clung like peanut butter to her hair. The two women ended up wrestling on the floor. They had to be separated by passengers.

"Passengers on a flight from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico, were stunned by the actions of one deranged passenger. He walked to the rear of the plane, then charged up the aisle, slapping passengers' heads along the way. Next, he kicked a pregnant flight attendant, who immediately fell to the ground. As if that weren't enough, he bit a young boy on the arm. At this point the man was restrained and handcuffed by crew members. He was arrested upon arrival.

"When bad weather closed the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for several hours, departing planes were stuck on the ground for the duration. One frustrated passenger, a young woman, walked up to a female flight attendant and said, 'I'm sorry, but I have to do this.' The passenger then punched the flight attendant in the nose, breaking her nose in the process."

Plane Insanity is stuffed with marvelous little stories of passenger mischief and flight crew lunacy. It's just the book to read on a flight. It's a fun book, nothing deep or profound going on in it, just the sort of sophomoric humor you used to get from National Lampoon's "True Facts" column. Who knows? Maybe carrying it conspicuously on your next flight might lead to a Close Encounter with one of the randy flight attendants Hester describes.

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