Flying Past the Stepford Stewardess

Flight attendants benefited emotionally when their primary focus shifted from courtesy to safety, a new paper suggests. Steven Slater may be an extreme example of that ability to unwind.
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When fed-up Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater slid down the emergency slide at JFK last week he activated a conversation among his peers and the traveling public over the propriety of sparring with customers who may, or may not, have had it coming. The first take from the public was a big thumbs up for his take on Howard Beale (if less so for his unorthodox exit).

Subsequent information — he might have been drinking, he has had enormous family traumas of late, he might just be a jerk, maybe he'll get a reality TV show — are keeping his story alive, even if the follow-ups provide more heat than light.

While Slater is in hot water with both his employer and the authorities, his action looks like an extreme example of something airlines are encouraging in their flight attendants — to take back the cabin.

That's the message (sans Slater commentary) of Marlene Santin, a former flight attendant turned sociologist at Canada's McMaster University who presented research on the topic at the ongoing American Sociological Association conference in Atlanta.

Santin, along with McMaster colleague Benjamin Kelly, studied flight attendants for a year starting on January 2006, directly observing the crews on a major, nonunion Canadian carrier.

They compared the workers' emotional state to that described in a seminal 1983 book, The Managed Heart, by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. She had used flight attendants as a prism into the emotional cost of being a Stepford employee, all smiles and attentiveness regardless of bad conditions or personal turmoil. (Cue Smokey Robinson: "Now if there's a smile on my face, It's only there trying to fool the public ...)

Since the attacks of 9/11, there's been a major shift in expectations for flight attendants. No longer will passivity do where there are unruly passengers who could potentially be dangerous, Santin and Kelly report. The shift stresses safety over courtesy and coincidentally, Santin explained at ASA, has empowered attendants to be more "authentic."

She quoted one attendant, who entered the business before 9/11, explaining how the final test she faced before being hired was a role-playing experience in which she had to placate two obstreperous passengers. "This was the first day I learned what the job was really about — acting."

But 9/11 changed that, almost immediately. Santin recalled that the policy manuals in place on that Tuesday in 2001 were replaced by Friday. Inside the rewritten manuals, hundreds of changes had been made, perhaps the most salient in this discussion the excising of the word "passive."

That set the stage for increased attendants' authority. Now, instead of stoically allowing someone to toss hot coffee on them since the airline wouldn't have the worker's back, as one of the researchers' interviewees recalled from the bad old days, now they have the institutional OK to have that person arrested. In short, as one attendant now puts the case, "stop the abuse or go to jail."

While that's not a license to be surly (nor a requirement to be heroic), it certainly removes, or at least loosens, an emotional belt, Santin suggested. Having more men as attendants also "has to account for something," she said.

There's still a belt, of course, since airlines are a service industry. One sociologist listening to Santin commented that he saw the "media" framing Slater's outburst as an example of his inability to be authentic as reaching its limit and then snapping back.

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