Cover Story: Flying and fed up

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Unruly air travelers or how to quit your job in the coolest way possible.

A JetBlue flight attendant freaks out after a passenger refused to listen and cracks him in the head with a suitcase.

The flight attendant got into a scuffle with a passenger and inadvertently became a working class hero.

After the plane landed in New York Monday a possibly unruly passenger hit flight attendant Steven Slater in the head with a piece of luggage.  May have been an accident - may have been on purpose.

Witnesses say Slater cursed out everyone on the plane's P-A system.

Then he grabbed a couple of beers and used the emergency slide to hop off the plane.

Passengers say Slater seemed pretty satisfied.

"He was, you know, happy that he had done that. At least he didn't seem to have thought he was going to get in trouble," says passenger Phil Catelinet.

Slater is in trouble with the law.  He's charged with a handful of felonies.

Maybe that kind of behavior's a little much.  But maybe if you were cooped up on a plane all day with a bunch of nasty, grumpy passengers you might lose your cool, too.

We've seen a pattern of disrespect by our passengers here at Charlotte-Douglas.

The head of the flight attendants union for US Airways told us unruliness is the rule not the exception these days.  What's behind the frustration people are feeling on both sides of the aisle?

Gina Marshall is happy not to be traveling as much anymore.  A corporate trainer based out of Charlotte she logged about 200,000 miles a year earning Platinum status with US Airways.

Last month, traded that job in for one that keeps her out of the air.  And for her it was just in time.  "The old adage they say, 'Come fly the friendly skies.' It's not so much anymore. People are cranky."

And Charlotte's seen its share of passengers going berserk.

  • In July 2009 a man arrested for taking his clothes off on a flight from Charlotte to L.A.
  • Last February, a plane bound for Houston had to turn around almost immediately.  Police arrested a 70-year old Albanian man who was screaming.. and demanded to be let off.
  • And four months ago Raun Brissenden was arrested on a flight from Germany. Passengers say he kicked a flight attendant and groped female passengers.

Gary Silverstein has seen a sea change.  The owner of Mann Travel in Charlotte - 31 years in the travel industry - says passengers and crew are frustrated.  "They're just not in a good mood to start off with. It's not like it used to be."

Remember the days he says pictured in the movie "Catch Me if You Can" when people used to dress up to fly?

The whole experience fliers say has changed in the last 20 years.

{***SOT 2 42;10***}

"Over time we've changed our way of travel. It was a big deal," says frequent flier Gina Marshall.

Passengers complain that airports and airplanes are packed, flights often are delayed and airlines now charge for everything.

And according to one parody they break it too.

"United broke my guitar."

Flight attendants carry their own baggage: passengers who break the rules and frustration with management over pay cuts endured through airline bankruptcies.

The episode involving flight attendant Steven Slater only highlights what some say is an increasingly hostile relationship between airlines and passengers.

For his part, Slater is being called a hero.  Others are saying "Way to go."

"We've seen some rude people on the planes," says travel expert Gary Silverstein.  "And they have gotten up right away. The flight attendant says please wait till be get to the gate.. we're still on an active taxiway. that's common.. you wouldn't thinking it would be but it's common."

Flight attendants tell us they encounter unruliness daily.  Passengers have unrealistic expectations when they fly-- that everything is going to go perfectly.

Passengers say they encounter crews that aren't professional and don't show enough respect.

Who's at fault here?  There seems to be plenty of blame to go around.

One measure of frustration:  the number of passengers being "bumped" increased by eight percent during the first quarter of this year versus last.

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