Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bad Customers

Flight attendant Steven Slater evidently reached the end of his runway. JetBlue announced yesterday that he was suspended pending an investigation. The cops arrested him after the incident in his Belle Harbor, N.Y., home.

Arrested him for what, exactly, is the mystery. Stealing a couple of beers? Well, stealing is stealing I guess. But other than that, what his crime was is a mystery. He made a bunch of customer service mistakes, to be sure. His career as a flight attendant has crash-landed.

To managerial types, he’s a zero, not a hero. His history, from what has been published in the newspapers so far, is not exactly Employee of the Month stuff, hopping from one job to another. His father died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. His mother is in the final stages of lung cancer. He’s battled alcoholism and drug abuse, and he was arrested in bed with his boyfriend.

Still, if one has to go down in flames, he certainly did it with a flourish, giving a profanity-laden farewell address to his passengers on the airplane’s public address system, grabbing his luggage and a couple of beers from the galley, opening the emergency exit (the plane was parked), throwing his luggage down the emergency chutes, then following them, beers still in hand.

From there, he trotted across the tarmac and caught the plane-train to the employee parking lot, hopped in his car, and drove home to Long Island where he and the boyfriend “celebrated.” The media has since been booing and hissing his work ethic. Working class people are cheering him as a hero who’d simply had enough.

The rest of us, those of us who have a sense of humor anyway, are laughing ourselves silly over it. Is it something we would be inclined to do? No. Is it something we would want to see our children do? Certainly not. But somebody had to make a stand for the poor customer service worker taking on the chin all these years because “the customer is always right.”

How do we know the customer is always right? Because we’ve heard nix from the Media about the passenger’s considerable verbal abuse of the flight attendant. Not a word about her profanity laden barrage or of how she ignored the rules that say stay seated and flight attendant’s authority in matters of safety. Not a single word of condemnation.

My mother drove a charter bus for almost 30 years. She had to put up with criticism of everything from her sex to the speed she was driving (never fast enough) to the condition of the bus’ air conditioning. She had to be nice, but she didn’t put up with abuse, either.

There might have been times when my mother might have liked to take the emergency exit, just run out the back door and leave the passengers sitting there. But she had to do her duty, no matter how badly her passengers behaved.

I don’t recall too many problem passengers, except for the occasional coach who would complain about how dirty the bus was, thanks to his own team. My mother liked to keep her bus very clean. Coming back from one trip, a team left her bus littered with garbage. She got a broom down from the overhead rack, swept the aisles and seats, and then pushed all the garbage out onto the school sidewalk.

“You forgot something,” she told the team and their coach.

Mom wouldn’t have used foul language with Jet Blue’s unruly passenger. But she wouldn’t have been nice, either, trying to politely explain why the luggage had to stay in the rack. She would have ordered the passenger to sit down, in no uncertain terms.

On many a trip, she had passengers who would wander in the aisle or kids who would hang out the windows of her bus. She wasn’t “nice” then, either. Unruly passengers got the full thunder of her wrath, without ever having to cover their ears (except maybe to protect their eardrums from the volume). When it came to the safe operation of the bus, Mom was The Boss. Never mind that “customer is always right” stuff.

Still, beyond the safety factor, Mom considered herself in the way of a servant. She was being paid to drive the bus. In that respect, the customers were the bosses. The passengers always came first in her priority, in safety and in respect. If they didn’t accord her the same respect, she considered that a failing of theirs, not hers, and in fact, their bad manners made her their moral superior.

No matter the provocation, Mom never did run out the back exit of the bus, crying, “That’s it. I’ve had it!” Sometimes, after a long Atlantic City run, she would come home and say so, and after the 999th trip to A.C., she did say that was it. But she didn’t leave the bus in the middle of the Garden State Parkway.

She always saw her job through: when the brakes failed at the top of Hunter Mountain just as a snowstorm was setting in and the lodge was closing; when she had a front tire blowout on Route 80 and she had to manhandle the bus to safety; when some hoodlums on an overpass threw rocks at her bus, blinding one of her passengers.  She had to clean up the mess, too, trying to see if she could save the poor man's eye.  But it was no use.  They were all lucky; what if the rock had hit my mother, the driver, instead?

Nor did she abuse her bus’ public address system or her passengers. She did give one busload of high school students a lecture on the use of profanity.

“Is this how you’re going to speak when you get into the business world. Is this the kind of letter you’re going to dictate to your secretary? Dear Mr. Smith, you d-head: You stink, you bag of sh--. I’ve hated doing business with you. Your company sucks, you f’g ba—rd. The next time I see you, I’m going to pi—on you. You’re an a—hole who couldn’t run a lemonade stand.

Sincerely yours,

Mr. X.

The students didn’t make another sound until they reached their destination.

She was more likely to use her PA system to instruct than to implode, especially when on tour without a tour guide. A history and science buff, she was a popular driver on class trips. Speaking of history, Mom drove during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Her bus was overloaded, with people standing in the aisles, hanging on. She was the last bus; if she hadn’t let them on, they would have been stranded. Going along the road, some men started to argue in the back of the bus. Mom thought, “OMG, now I’m going to have a fistfight and it’s snowing. We’re in a bad situation here on a mountain road with no markers in a blizzard and these guys want to kill each other. What am I going to do?”

She picked up the microphone and said, very low key, “Oh come on, everyone. We’re all in this together. Let’s try to get along.” Silence fell, peace reigned, and they got back to the village safely.

But the worst customer, she says, was the Atlantic City run passenger in the seat right behind her who threw up all over her.

“I was absolutely coated,” Mom says. “My hair, my shirt, my pants – everything.”

Mom pulled the bus over to the side of the road. She went back to the lavatory. Her jacket was in the overhead rack, not on the back of her seat, so it had been saved. Taking off her blouse, she put the jacket on instead and cleaned herself up in the bus lavatory. Then she got some newspapers and paper towels and cleaned up the mess on the floor.

“Only one passenger out of the fifty helped me,” she says. When that passenger asked what they should do with the used newspapers, she told him to throw it onto the side of the road.

“I just couldn’t drive with that smell in the bus,” she explains. They got about three miles down the road and the woman threw up again. This time, she got it into the aisle instead all over Mom. But again, Mom had to pull over and do clean-up duty, with the help of the Good Samaritan passenger.

“She’d been drinking in Atlantic City,” says Mom. “Normally, I don’t condemn sick passengers. But why did she have to throw up all over me? Thank goodness for that other passenger. I got him some comp tickets to one of the casinos.”

The owner of the company was angry that she gave away tickets (makes you wonder what the comp tickets are for, then). So Mom got angry back and said she’d buy them herself if she had to. Mom didn’t take guff from anyone, not even the boss.

Customers and passengers, in particular, seem to have a problem understanding two basic concepts: 1) things go wrong, buses, trains break down; and 2) you have to follow the rules. The reason there are cabin attendants are so pilots don’t have to leave the controls to break up fights, clean up vomit, and make sure passengers behave themselves. A jet pilot can’t exactly pull over to the side of the road to stop a fistfight. That’s why we obey the flight attendants.

When they tell us to remain in our seats, we’re supposed to remain in our seats, not curse them out.

Let’s hope Flight Attendant Slater’s exhibition serves to improve customer relations and customer behavior. Let’s hope that customers will remember that the clerks, sales assistants, bus drivers, flight attendants, conductors, receptionists, and ticket takers are customer service representatives not customer servants.

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