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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Don’t Touch The Flight Attendant!

Stewardess Barbie

It Sounds So Last Century, but Cabin Crew Are Still Hassled by Sex Pests originally appeared on Time.com June 26, 2014

Of course, it is not really about what recruits wear, or how they look, but about power. Flight attendants could wear potato sacks and still get hassled. Stopping would-be offenders means showing passengers and staff alike that abuse will not be tolerated, says Heather Poole, an industry veteran and the author of the bestseller Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet“There’s a reason foreign carriers like to keep their flight attendants young,” she says. In her experience, young people, who often have less job security, may be hesitant to speak up.

When, as a rookie, she was groped by a passenger in first class, she fled to the galley and did not report it. “I had just started flying, and I didn’t want to lose my job by causing a problem with an important passenger,” she recalled in an email. “I still don’t [know] who I’d go to for something like that. The union? Human resources? A 1-800 number?”

For Hong Kong–based crew, at least, the new rules may provide some help. And at least the issue is being discussed. But tackling the problem globally will require all jurisdictions, and airlines, to step up. Not to mention passengers. “I’d suggest that any person with a propensity to act out in this manner consider traveling as if their mother is sitting next to them,” Poole says. “An 18-year-old new hire may handle a situation differently than a flight attendant with 10 years’ seniority and a black belt in Taekwondo.”

Creeps: consider yourself warned.


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How to sleep in coach

get-attachment-1.aspxSurprising Tricks: How to Sleep on a Plane  appeared on Entrepreneur.com May 30, 2014

Before the flight


Choose your side. Now, the last time you bought a mattress, you thought about what kind of a sleeper you are, right? Side sleeper, stomach, toss and turner? Now unless you afford to book a lie- flat seat (and, if so, will you adopt us?), you’ll need to start thinking of yourself as an on-your-back somewhat-to-the-side sleeper and book accordingly. The big question? Do you sleep on the left or the right side of the bed at home? “Get a window seat for night flights. If you sleep on your right side at home go for the right side of the plane,” says Heather Poole, a flight attendant for one of the “big” airlines and author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. (Over the last 18 years as a flight attendant, she’s watched thousands and thousands and thousands of people try to sleep on planes. She knows what works.)

During the flight

Comfort. Please, for the sake of everybody else’s eyeballs, do not wear adult footie pajamas on the plane (it has happened, people – it has happened!) but do make yourself comfy for that sleep-in flight. No need to change after takeoff. Wear the nice-and-clean-without-any-holes-in-them sweats to the airport. Carry your suit on and change into it when you get off the plane. “It will look as though you just put it on because you did,” Poole says. So spiffy. And refreshed.

Cradle. Yes, the donut pillow is ugly. And used as expected, with the U bit at the back of the neck, it never really seems worth schlepping along. But Poole turned the idea on its head (or, well, neck): “The trick is to wear it backwards so your neck stays in place.” That means: no more sudden jerking forward neck snapping wow are you awake and in pain moments. Nope. Gone.

Ergonomics-ish. Poole also advises that you use your carry-on as a leg rest or roll the airplane pillow under your knees. And that sketchy blanket they (sometimes) hand out? “Use it for lumbar support,” Poole says. “It’s better to freeze than risk the potential infection.” (Yes, we’re all grossed out now. And off to buy a thin sleeping bag liner to use on our next flight—and wash immediately after returning home.)



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