Ebola on a plane

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I wrote Why Flight Attendants are Concerned About Ebola for Mashable on Oct 29, 2014

I’d just gotten off a flight from Las Vegas to Chicago, and only had a moment to grab something to eat before my next flight to New York. I made a beeline for Tortas Frontera and ordered the usual. I was starving. It had been a long day.

I got on board the empty plane for my next flight, and stowed my rolling bag in the last overhead bin in coach — the official crew bag location. In 10 minutes I’d start breaking the ice, meaning setting up the galley. In 15 minutes we’d start boarding.

I was just about to plop down in an empty seat to take a couple of quick bites of dinner when I noticed … something.

Vomit. All over the seat. All over the floor. All over the in-flight magazines, the safety briefing card, and an (unused) airsick bag. I called the captain.

“That’s strange, nobody wrote it up,” he said after checking the log book. “I’ll call the cleaners.”

I know Ebola can only be transferred through bodily fluids from an infected person. Most of the cases have come from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, and the likelihood that the sick passenger on this domestic flight — whoever they were — had traveled from one of those places on this plane was slim to none.

Still, it crossed my mind. Of course it crossed my mind.

Two cabin cleaners came on board. One was wearing blue rubber gloves and carrying a spray bottle of disinfectant. She went to work spraying everything in sight — but first she handed those in-flight magazines from the seat pocket to her partner. Who wasn’t wearing gloves.

Not good, I thought, staring at her bare hands.

A few minutes later the woman holding the contaminated SkyMall discovered even more vomit. In the bathroom. All over the walls.

Bet it happened upon landing, I thought. Why else would it have gone unnoticed? Unreported.

“Must have been the Rockies,” said an agent walking briskly down the aisle to the back of the plane, where we all stood staring at the woman with the spray bottle. “We always have sick passengers on these inbound flights.”

The cabin cleaner’s gloved hand now held the bathroom door handle. She leaned against the door and held it open for me to take a peak inside.

“That look OK?”

“Oh … uh … sure,” I said. It did look okay.

But that gloved hand on the handle was an entirely different story.

Before I could say anything the agent determined we were good to go and announced she was sending the passengers down. She had a plane to board and there was no way she was taking a delay.

I watched the cleaners walk up to first class and then off the plane. I couldn’t help but notice the woman still had on the blue gloves, her hands touching a couple of seats on her way out.

Passengers get sick all the time on flights. It’s perfectly normal. It’s why there’s an airsick bag in the seat pocket in front of you. What’s not okay is when I’m passing through the cabin and somebody silently hands me a bag of … wait … what is this? A little heavy. Kinda warm.

But that’s another story.

Anyway, maybe the agent was right. Maybe it was the Rockies. Maybe it was food poisoning. Maybe it was too much alcohol the night before. Or the flu. Who knows.

That’s the problem with my job as a flight attendant: I just don’t know what might be going on when I encounter a sick passenger. But I did know that day that I was 99.9% sure the mystery vomit did not come from a passenger with Ebola.

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An Ode to the Flight Attendant Scarf

southwest2I wrote To Be a Flight Attendant, All it Takes Is a Scarf for Mashable.com October 15, 2014

I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She wore orange short-shorts, a matching tight T-shirt and white knee-high go-go boots. The sexy getup wasn’t what stood out to me, though, nor was it the mile-high Afro. I didn’t even notice the silver tray with a Bloody Mary balanced on top of it. No, what I noticed the moment I saw her was the scarf.

All it takes is a scarf, I thought, as I stared at the vintage photograph of a pretty Southwest Airlines flight attendant. Excuse me, stewardess. Those were the days … at least that’s what I’ve been told.

Google the phrase “flight attendant” and click on “images” — and no matter what airline, most flight attendants will be wearing scarves. Like a little emphasis, the scarf underlines each smiling face.

I’ve been a flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier for eighteen years. When I’m not flying, I’m writing about flying.

I wrote a book about being a flight attendant, and on the cover is a photograph of a young woman. Well, really it’s half of a half of a smiling face. But — crucially — there’s a red scarf. No need to flip it over and read the blurb on the back. Just one glance and you know what the book is about.

In the early years of aviation, pilots donned heavy cotton scarves to keep from breathing in engine exhaust. Later, fighter pilots adopted silk scarfs to avoid chafing their necks — looking around for enemy planes required a lot of head turning. Today’s military still has uses for scarves: consider the fully wrapped sniper scarf. Other scarves are used in the military for decorative purposes, to denote unit insignias and emblems of pride.

Whenever anything interesting happens in the world of airlines, say a passenger gets duct taped to his seat or somebody freaks out because of a reclined seat, I get asked to do television interviews. Without fail, producers will suggest I wear my uniform. The answer is always no.

“I don’t need to wear a costume to talk about what’s going on in the world,” I told one reporter. But when we met at LaGuardia airport the next day, she whipped out two scarves from her purse. One for me and one for her, so she could play along. All it took was a scarf to be a flight attendant.

People like to mimic flight attendants. Don’t believe me? Check out how many stewardess costumes you see this Halloween. Also note the only real thing they have in common with my uniform: The scarf.

Nothing says flight attendant quite like a scarf.

During boarding a few years ago, a passenger looked at me funny and asked, “Do you work here?”

“Of course I work here,” I laughed. Why else would I be standing in front of the first class closet hanging coats? That’s when I realized what I wasn’t wearing: My blazer hung in the closet with all the other coats that, except for the two gold stripes around the wrist, looked exactly like mine. But more importantly, my scarf was wadded up in one of the pockets, along with a tube of lipstick and assorted hotel pens.

Flight attendant training lasted seven and a half weeks. It was hell. Those 53 days of training were more stressful than four years of college. This is why, I’m sure, airlines wait until we’re halfway through, when we’re just about to break, when we’re on the edge of a massive revolt — that or quit — to measure us for uniforms

I’ll never forget walking into the room. The walls were lined with little black suitcases on wheels and matching totes. Women holding tape measures stood in front of rolling racks. The clouds parted and the angels began to sing the moment we spotted the skirts and shirts, blazers and dresses. Standing in front of the mirror, I turned side to side taking in my reflection.

The scarf was the icing on the cake. I wanted to cry tears of joy. Didn’t matter that the ensemble would be payroll deducted — $800 from my measly $18,000 annual salary — or that I had four more weeks of training to go before I’d take flight. I thanked my instructor. Stockholm syndrome had fully set in. My scarf was tied.

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35,000 Feet in the Air: Where Sexual Harassment Can Still Get a Pass

I wrote 35,000 Feet in the Air: Where Sexual Harassment Can Still Get a Pass for Mashable.com September 21, 2014

jo_nationa_adWhen I first started working as a flight attendant, a CEO of a telecommunications giant pinched me on the you-know-what. I didn’t know what to do, so I nervously laughed and ran to the galley where I would’ve cursed him out — if he hadn’t followed me there.

That’s when he did it again. Right in front of my crew.

We all just stood there in disbelief, staring at one another until he disappeared back to his first-class seat. No one said a word. We were all in shock.

I didn’t report it, largely because I didn’t know who to complain to. The union? Human resources? A 1-800 number? I had no clue.

And I figured it was the sort of thing that came with the job of being a flight attendant. I knew the airline wouldn’t want to be inconvenienced by a call to law enforcement over a nonviolent, though unruly, passenger. Especially since the only person offended was me, an employee.

We’ve come a long way from “We really move our tail for you,” and “I’m Cheryl, Fly me.”

But even in this age of “Keep Climbing” and “Fly the Friendly Skies,” sexual harassment happens much more often than it should. (According to a survey done earlier this year, 27% of the flight attendants that responded had been sexually harassed in the previous twelve months.)

Maybe it’s because we come into brief contact with so many people. They come, they go, we never see them again. Anonymity can bring out the worst in people.

Flight attendants aren’t alone. My friend, Bob, a pilot, once had a female passenger put her hands on his behind when he tried to squeeze into a fully occupied exit row to peer out the window to get a look at what might have been a problem with the wing. “Woohoo! Get some!” another woman shouted. Passengers nearby laughed. Bob laughed too. When he returned to the cockpit and told the other pilot what happened, she laughed as well. So did I. Mostly because I can’t imagine a pilot being treated that way.  What it is about airplanes that makes people think it’s okay to behave that way?

When I tweeted I was writing about sexual harassment, a flight attendant on an Asian carrier reached out. Her company policy is to ignore in-flight harassment: It actually states that in her flight manual. And her manager, who is also her union rep, was quick to pull that section out after she complained about unwanted advances from a first-class passenger.

If a passenger reaches out to her in any way — say he invites her to dinner — she’s expected to respond with a thank you and give him a business card with her company email address on it. Once somebody sent her a bra with a note saying it would make her look more sexy. She was instructed to send a thank you. Because it might have come from a corporate VIP.

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How to Seduce a Flight Attendant

get-attachment.aspxMy interview with Maxim Magazine originally appeared on Maxim.com September 15, 2014

Why do you think so many guys are into flight attendants? It’s got to be the uniform right?
Maybe men just secretly like being told what to do? A firm, ‘Keep your seatbelt buckled!’ even when the seatbelt sign is not on might be one man’s idea of a turn-on.

I once read a study about how men find a woman more attractive when they’re in an unnerving or frightening situation. Stuck in the middle seat, being in the last row of coach – those are all pretty subordinate and scary spots to find yourself in. Then again, it could be that guys find strong, independent women attractive. Flight attendants are intelligent, self-sufficient and adventurous. We’re also attractive and out there traveling the world alone. Of course these are also the things that can become an issue in many relationships since these qualities can cause jealousy. It takes a confident man to be in a flight attendant’s life. 

What are the odds of actually getting a flight attendant’s attention? They are working..
About as good as they’d be in any other public environment. Start with a ‘hello’ when your flight attendant greets you at the boarding door. You’d be surprised how many people don’t even acknowledge our existence when we say, ‘Good Morning’ when they walk on board. During the service, try using ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Good manners are rare and really stand out these days. Mix in a little eye contact and we might blush. It’s nice to be noticed. 

Let us do our job, but once the service is over walk to the back and ask for a glass of water or something. While she’s pouring the drink, ask a question about where to go and what to do in the city you’re traveling to. That should get the ball rolling. You’ll know you have a shot if she doesn’t walk away to pick up trash or shoo you off the linoleum.

Any other strategies?
When you see someone who needs help with something, like a bag, by all means help. Nothing says ‘nice guy’ more than that. My heart kind of swoons whenever I see somebody helping their fellow man, it’s such a rare thing these days. And I’m prone to follow it up with more wine or water for them. But who knows, you might get farther with someone else. I almost cried once when a businessman switched seats so my son and I could sit together. I hadn’t even asked him. Kindness is sexy, and anytime is a good time to pull that trick out of your hat.

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Who’s to Blame for the Reclining Seat Fights?

P1010734I wrote Who’s to Blame for the Reclining Seat Fights for Conde Nast Traveler. It appeared on their website September 2, 2014.

Recently, a reporter contacted me to find out if flight attendants were purposefully not getting involved in the war against reclined seats. It’s no surprise that the media is focusing on the crew’s role in the recent passenger spats over reclining seats: Is the crew doing enough to keep passengers calm? Are they overreacting? Did they really need to divert that flight? But I’m sick of being the seat recline police.

Passengers misbehaving on airplanes are not new. I’ve seen plenty of problematic passengers in the 18 years that I’ve been a flight attendant; if it’s not the food, it’s the lack of food, and if it’s not that, it might be that a seat is too small, and on and on. On my last flight a woman sat plugging her nose for an entire flight because she didn’t like the way the elderly woman beside her smelled. The point is it’s always something.

(This is where I should probably point out that 90 percent of these problems come from 10 percent of the people. Problem passengers tend to have a lot of problems, which they make known early on a flight.)

In both recent instances of flight interruptions over reclining seats, I assume the situation had to have been pretty bad to divert a flight. It’s expensive to land an aircraft at a different airport, and no one makes that decision lightly. After all, nobody wants to be blamed for costing the company money, and nobody wants to go in on a day off to discuss the possibility. (I wonder if taking out a row of seats is worth a few unscheduled landings each week.)

And sometimes, flight attendants may be too scared to make that call. Early in my career, I nearly had to divert a flight due to passenger misconduct. The captain asked if I wanted to, but I was a brand new flight attendant and scared to death of getting in trouble. Who was I to take responsibility for an airplane to make an unscheduled landing? I thought the pilot should make the call; he did, and we did not divert. (I still think we should have.)

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To Recline, Or Not To Recline: That is the Question

IMG_3496“He’s in my lap!” cried the passenger in the window seat.

I looked at the woman, and then at the man who was clearly not in her lap. He was close though, about a foot away, maybe? Sorry, I mouthed. I handed her a can of Diet Coke and a cup of ice and communicated to her in words I knew she’d understand: “Unfortunately he’s allowed to be in your lap.”

There are certain topics I avoid in polite conversation: Politics, religion, and the right to recline on an airplane. People feel very strongly about these things, and if the conversation gets heated there’s nowhere to hide — especially if you are on an airplane, 30,000 feet above the ground. In 18 years as a flight attendant, there has been more than one occasion I’ve considered locking myself inside an empty cart.

Flight attendants hear more complaints about recliners from antirecliners than anything else.

One time a woman wearing Coke-bottle glasses called me over to show me that she could not put down her tray table because of the seat in front of her. I suggested that perhaps if she removed the very large fanny pack from around her waist, it might go down. By the way she looked at me you’d think I was the crazy one.

She punished me by not ordering a drink.

Then there was the guy who had the nerve to complain about a recliner, even though his own seat was reclined. But he didn’t care, he just kept on complaining.

Even the people who, if you saw on the street, would think were the picture of politeness get upset about personal space on an airplane. An older woman threatened to punch a teenage girl in the face when the girl put her seat back. I had to remind the woman — a grown, adult woman — that’s not how we do things around here.

There are two kinds of people in this world: Recliners and Anti-recliners. They do not get along.

While most passengers dread turbulence, what leaves a lot of flight attendants dreading a long flight are on-board confrontations, which seem to be happening more often these days. It’s a really big deal for us to walk off a flight or have a passenger removed. Diverting a flight is absolutely the last case scenario, so the two passengers who were left in Chicago after fighting over a reclining seat must have been completely terrible.

Whoever you side with in the Great Seat Reclining Debacle of 2014, there’s one thing that needs to be said: All passengers are allowed to recline their seats. All passengers are allowed to recline their seats. Even during meal service, even right after the pilot announces we’re at a safe altitude, even when you want to work on your laptop.

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British Airways introduces a mood blanket

airlineWhen I read about British Airways’ new high-tech blanket, called “the “happiness blanket,” my first thought was that it had to be a joke. A blanket that analyzes the “meditative state” of premium cabin fliers? What a waste of money.

But it’s not a joke. According to Businessweek, “The wool ‘happiness blanket’ is embedded with tiny fiber optic LEDs that change color based on brainwaves transmitted via Bluetooth from a band worn on a passenger’s head.”

I don’t need fiber optics to tell you when a passenger is stressed and anxious, or how to make them more relaxed.Try two more inches of legroom, and a seat that fully reclines. And a neighbor who isn’t chatting about the shade of their blanket.

Plus, if you’re sleeping, don’t you think you’re pretty relaxed? Is there anyone who really wants everyone knowing that much about them? Having your mood transmitted to the rest of the cabin sounds like something that could make you even more anxious.

Sure, we live in the age of Facebook where we put it all out there for the world to see, but at least we have some control over what we share.

Imagine seeing 3B turning a dark shade of red. Must have been the pasta. (No joke: that tortellini in a cream sauce makes some passengers freak out.) Or imagine the opposite about 3A; we don’t really want to know why he’s so happy with his blanket, do we? If you know what I mean.

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