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Why flight attendants want to pull the chute

By Elliot Hester, Special to CNN
  • Elliot Hester says he gets why Slater blew up, made dangerous emergency chute exit
  • He says he's faced similar situations with passengers who think rules don't apply to them
  • But airline rules are uneven, he says, and attendants have no power to enforce them
  • Hester: Airlines should have uniform code that begins at check-in, ends at baggage claim

Editor's note: Elliott Hester is a travel writer, former syndicated columnist and author of "Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet." He works as a flight attendant.

Sao Paulo, Brazil (CNN) -- In a few short days, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater has achieved folk-hero status.

He's the man who allegedly cursed out a disruptive passenger over the on-board public address system, then opened an aircraft door, inflating the emergency chute in the process. He grabbed a beer from a service cart and slid down, effectively saying "Ba-bye" to his 20-year flying career.

Slater's exit created a danger to ramp workers and could earn him a prison stay. Nevertheless, his actions call attention to escalating tensions between flight attendants and the passengers they serve. They also highlight a little known issue that's a big problem for flight attendants.

For the last 25 years, I've worked as a flight attendant for a large U.S. carrier. Many times I've been in Slater's position: A passenger opens the overhead bin to retrieve a carry-on bag before the captain says the plane has safely reached the gate. (For safety reasons, attendants are trained to make sure passengers stay in their seats, overhead bins remain closed and carry-on bags are properly stowed "until the aircraft reaches the gate and the captain turns off the fasten seat belt sign.")

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Most offenders are simply eager to get off a cramped airplane and willingly sit down when asked. But occasionally -- as was possibly the case with the passenger Slater responded to -- some passengers think the rules don't apply to them. I've been glared at, verbally abused, threatened with lawsuits and recriminations from God simply because I asked a passenger to comply with the rules.

Herein lies the problem. What exactly are the rules? Why do they seem different from one flight to the next? And what authority do flight attendants have when it comes to enforcing them?

The answer to that last and most compelling question is "zero." Contrary to what you may think, flight attendants have absolutely no authority aboard an aircraft. We are not police officers or security personnel. We are not empowered by law to enforce airline policy, FAA regulation or criminal mischief.

We can't force noncompliant passengers to buckle their seat belts, stow their tray tables, turn off cell phones, put away pornographic magazines (yes, it happens) or stay in their seats until the plane docks. All we can do is approach the passenger, explain "the rules" and hope they comply. Failing that, the only recourse is to call the captain, who, depending on his or her disposition, may not address the problem adequately.

Consequently, flight attendants often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. It's frustrating when your employer demands that you impose policy without giving you the means to do so. Perhaps this is why Slater snapped. While I disagree with the manner in which he vented, like Chris Rock says, "I understand."

As far as carry-on bags are concerned, the rules, which are seemingly clear but not uniformly enforced, are a major point of contention between passengers and crew. Most carriers limit each passenger to one carry-on bag and one personal item (i.e. laptop bag, small backpack, etc.).

But does a woman's large purse qualify as personal item? Is she therefore allowed three items when a man is only allowed two? Are passengers allowed more carry-ons on half-empty flights? This seems reasonable, given the abundance of space in which to stow bags, which is why some attendants and gate agents turn a blind eye to a passenger with too many bags on an empty flight.

But when that same passenger tries to board a full connecting flight with four bags and is forced to check two in the cargo hold, he may protest vehemently. "Hey, they let me bring these on my last flight, why won't you? I'm never flying this #&*@!$* airline again!" I've heard this so often and so loudly I've become numb to the allegation.

The only way to mitigate passenger-employee conflict and ensure smooth flying is to impose a uniform airline code that begins at the check-in desk and ends at the luggage carousel.

Passengers should be allowed no more than two carry-on bags on every flight; ticket agents should check ALL other bags. If your tweezers are allowed through security at O'Hare, those same tweezers should be allowed through security on your way home from JFK.

Disruptive passengers should be blacklisted and banned from future flying. And any flight attendant who takes it upon himself to open an emergency exit and slide down the chute because a foul-mouthed passenger won't follow the rules, well ... he might find that behavior is not much better in a prison cell.