I first heard about the incident with the JetBlue flight attendant up in JFK on Monday when it happened. For those of you who missed it, flight attendant Steven Slater, fed up from his interaction with an irate passenger, announced his dissatisfaction over the cabin intercom, grabbed a beer from the galley, and then blew the emergency-evacuation slide to exit the plane. He was arrested and charged with felonies but has also managed to gain folk-hero status with thousands of people.
I spent a few years working in the airline industry with some of that being in direct customer service positions. I know full well that some passengers out there are clueless, classless people. (A businessman who spent 5 minutes screaming at me to “bring the f*&@ing plane back” after he had deliberately stepped away from the gate moments before departure time to make a phone call and the lady who ranted at me about our owing her an on-time departure – in the middle of a driving thunderstorm – are cases that come to mind.) And we’ve all had our fantasy moments thinking about grand “take this job and shove it” gestures that would leave astonished and humiliated bosses in our wake as we get away clean. What this idiot male stewardess did stepped way over the line and no one should be applauding him.
The issue that got the ball rolling was an irate passenger, remember? What was she mad about? Allowed to proceed to the gate with a carry-on bag, she was told at some point during the boarding process that they didn’t have room for the bag in the cabin. Now, I don’t know what was in the bag but it was clearly stuff she didn’t want to risk having miss the flight or get lost by ramp workers who are, these days, notorious for not giving too much of a damn when or whether the bags make it back to their owners. Maybe the bag was too big for the overhead bins, but more likely it was because there were already too many bags in the bins when the lady got on the plane. This is something I’ve had happen to me a few times in the last 6 months. The people who get the 1st or 2nd boarding groups are the guys walking on with the stuffed garment bag and the roll-on bag that’s 3 millimeters under the maximum size allowed. These guys always get their bags on board leaving those of us stuck in the last boarding group to deal with gate-checked bags. Those bags are supposed to be brought up to the jetway immediately. In this instance, “immediately” was apparently not as immediate as the passenger wanted. How fast was it, really? We don’t know. If the reports are true, however, she was cussing at Slater and I certainly don’t approve of that. Regardless, cussing isn’t inherently dangerous to someone and it’s certainly not illegal (outside of Michigan, I think.)
Slater decided this woman had given him all he could stand and so he decided to make a grand exit. Had he picked up the cabin microphone and said his piece, walked out the door and out of the airport, you could make the argument to me that what he did was cool. I might have considered that over the top, I might not. But that’s not where this ended. Slater grabbed a beer from the galley on his way out. That’s a beer he didn’t pay for nor was it his. There’s a word for that: theft. To those people lauding his actions, I have to ask: if he’d grabbed the beer from the cooler at the local 7-11 and walked out without paying, would you still be applauding? Or would you call him what he is, a shoplifter?
What he did next was far more dangerous and destructive than what’s being reported. He blew the evac slide on the side of the plane not attached to the jetway. (How do I know which slide? He was clearly up front where the passengers were deplaning because he was being berated by the woman awaiting her bag and you can’t blow the slide on a door that was already disarmed and open, which is the one the jetway would be attached to.) Now, just a quick note before I move to the really serious part. The evac slides are extremely expensive pieces of gear. They are made to never fail because when you need them, you need them to work correctly, instantly, every time. Engineering tolerances like that can be achieved but it ain’t cheap. They’re also not what you’d call reusable. Oh, I imagine they could be repacked but you should be thinking of them like you do your car’s air bags. Once they’ve been fired, they’re replaced completely. This clown just deployed one so he could have a happy slide off the airplane and that’s thousands of dollars in what amounts to vandalism done in an instant. We could also make the argument that he deliberately circumvented the airport’s security because once he hit the slide there was nothing standing between the passengers and the secure area of the ramp. It’s a minor point but it’s still there.
But the real issue with this is the danger he placed all of the ground team in while performing this stunt. JetBlue uses 2 aircraft types, the Airbus 320 and the Embraer 190. Both are twin engine jets roughly the same configuration as the well-known Boeing 737. The passenger door thresholds are about 10 feet above the ramp when the plane is on the ground, well above the normal plane of awareness of the average ramp worker who is generally far more concerned with the ground support gear (bag tugs, lavatory carts, etc.) and the engines of the aircraft around them. To have a door not associated with the normal ground ops suddenly pop open and a slide weighing hundreds of pounds deploy with thousands of pounds of pressure literally above their heads is a major issue. Prosecutors are making this exact point in their case:
Prosecutors said Slater’s actions could have been deadly if ground crew workers had been hit by the emergency slide, which deploys with a force of 3,000 pounds per square inch. Turman said Slater had opened the hatch and made sure no one was in the slide’s path before deploying it.
Turman is Slater’s lawyer. Typically, he’s shooting his mouth off without knowing what he’s talking about. Evac slides are attached to the bottom of the door and an anchor bar to the base of the slide is placed in attach points on the threshold of the galley floor to keep it firmly attached to the plane when in use. When this is done, the door is considered “armed.” The deployment method is for the crewmember to open the door without pulling that bar out of the attach points. When the door breaks the seal around the frame and moves just a bit, the expansion cartridge inflates the slide very quickly and with those thousands of pounds of pressure I mentioned before. That action literally throws the door the rest of the way open. Accidental deployments have been recorded where gate agents waiting on the other side of that door after having driven the jetway into position have been injured when the door literally slaps them back up the jetway. The key is this: in order to open the door safely, the slide must be disarmed. When the door is then opened, the slide is completely out of reach of the crew member because it’s hanging on the bottom of the door which is now laying flat along the outside of the plane. You cannot open the door first and then deploy the slide. That’s just not how the device is engineered. Slater opened that door with the slide armed, which means he absolutely did not “[open] the hatch and [make] sure no one was in the slide’s path” before the slide deployed.
Now, there’s a little 4-inch window in the door that’s used to determine if something is immediately outside the door before you open it. Slater and his lawyer might say they meant to say he looked out that window before deploying the slide. Tha
t window is used to check to see if there’s a jetway in place or, in an emergency, to determine whether you’re about to open the cabin door into a raging jetfuel fire. It’s got a massively-distorting fisheye effect when you’re looking through it, making it completely unsuitable to see whether there’s a ramp agent directly under the door.
Bottom line: Slater just popped that slide without a second thought for whomever he was putting in danger. Had there been someone there, they would – at best – have been severely injured. Likely killed. And Slater would have slid right over them on his way to his own personal Miller time. “Reckless” is the nicest thing you can call that. This man doesn’t deserve to be held up as some kind of working-stiff hero. He’s a thoughtless jerk, a clueless menace. He clearly felt he was too good to be yelled at by someone whose opinion he shouldn’t have given a crap about and that air of offended entitlement placed other JetBlue employees at risk. He’s guilty of the crimes he’s accused of and he should be convicted on that fact alone. After paying the fines to the Court and restitution to JetBlue, after attending the anger-management classes he clearly needs, perhaps we can trade his time in jail with time spent providing some kind of service to the community. I’m thinking roadway cleanup on the roads leading into the airport or perhaps tasking him with carrying any gate-checked baggage from the ramp up to the jetways.