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That's how the cookie (and a passenger's calm) crumbles

By Kat Kinsman, CNN
updated 12:48 PM EDT, Wed June 13, 2012
Don't underestimate the power of airline snack and beverage service.
Don't underestimate the power of airline snack and beverage service.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eatocracy editor Kat Kinsman reveals the anguish of being skipped for snacks
  • When you're trapped in a plane with little space or control, tiny offerings loom large
  • Being pleasant goes a long way on both sides of the passenger-flight attendant relationship

Editor's note: The Traveler's Psyche is a five-week series focusing on travel scenarios that stir emotion. Today, Eatocracy editor Kat Kinsman shares an anguished tale of a Biscoff nearly denied.

(CNN) -- When I didn't get my cookie, I almost started crying. No, this didn't happen when I was 5, 10 or even 15 years old. It was this past Christmas on an airplane bound for my home in New York, and I'm pretty sure this is the most embarrassing sentence I have ever typed.

It's not as if I'm normally some sort of slavering baked goods fiend (though I do love those Biscoff on Delta. Pro tip: Ask for a lime wedge to squeeze on them) or an especially nervous air passenger. I fly frequently enough to earn medallion status, know all the tricks for zipping through security lines bearing various challenging food products and am rattled not by pockets of turbulence.

It's just that when I've been stripped of my possessions, my dignity and any semblance of personal space and then strapped in for a multihour spell in the world's most cramped and crappy bar car, the little niceties go a long way toward keeping me -- keeping everyone -- sane. Or at least what passes for sane at 30,000 feet above the Earth.

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I smile at people a lot when I travel. It's not something I do on purpose, but it doesn't cost me anything, and even a flicker of civility can add a little light to the day of someone who's been screamed at, crashed into and generally treated as less than human by tired, frustrated and plain old nasty passengers. It feels good to do, and behaving like a kind, rational person has unintentionally paid off in room and cabin upgrades, free drinks and smiles back on days when I've found myself in need of such a thing.

A portion of the excess beaming also might be faking it till I make it. I'm not a nervous flier, but I am a generally anxious person prone to minor panic attacks -- especially when I'm moving heaven and Earth to get somewhere on time. I've worked intensively over the years to rein it in and take great pains not to let it bleed onto the people around me. Deep breathing helps, as do little rituals like perusing the newsstand, listening to a particular song or, if you're me, writing an honest to goodness pen and ink letter to a faraway friend while awaiting takeoff.

But the travel gods are not always smiling down upon us. The cab is late, there's an entire high school orchestra in the TSA line ahead of you, the magazine shop has yet to open for the day, and your headphones, pen and paper were accidentally packed in the bag you just checked.

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On the day of my cookie downfall, my husband and I had been away from home for days, playing the part of the prodigal son and daughter-in-law at the holidays. His mother's health had been on the decline for a while, and we did our best to tend to her in the midst of mandatory holiday cheer. We were emotionally drained, physically spent, stressed from a sprint to the airport and a last-second quest for cheap rental car gas and, like every other human being traveling in the waning days of December, just needed the journey to come to a peaceful end.

After an exceptionally long and minimally addressed gate delay, we all gallumphed onto the plane, belted in and waited a goodly bit more. These things happen, and a lot of my fellow passengers seemed possessed of the notion that the planes are fueled by loud sighs, impatient groans and crabby cellphone conversations ("We're just STUCK at the gate. No, I don't know when. No, YOU tell them we're going to be late. FINE!").

My husband dozed and I tried to breathe deeply, not fixate on the strain of the previous few days or fret that the dog kennel would close before we could get home, and ignore the child rhythmically, ritualistically kicking the back of my seat. And I was really looking forward to that cookie; possibly even some manner of adult beverage as well.

For the last 30-odd years, I've seen the stock that passengers put into the inflight feeding ritual. Whether it's a scone with strawberries, clotted Devonshire cream and honest to goodness metal utensils on a short hop from Paris to London, or a lukewarm half-can of Diet Coke and .00006-ounce packet of pretzel dust, being given some manner of sustenance in the middle of captivity means an awful lot to people.

On a redeye flight to London in the late 1990s, I saw a 20-something woman mewl like an orphaned kitten when she realized she'd missed a midnight round of ice cream bars. I've witnessed grown men's rage as they realized the beverage cart did not contain their preferred brand of bourbon, and mixups surrounding specially ordered entrees have been met with McEnroe-level rage by people of all races, creeds and genders. People might just dig airline cuisine an awful lot, but I suspect it has an awful lot to do with maintaining some manner of control in the midst of chaos.

As my friend Chrissy says, "I always find it amusing watching the other people on the flight. When the service comes around, they act like they are being served their last snack ever." I'd never fussed all that much, but this time, that silly little cookie suddenly meant the world to me. And I wasn't going to get it.

The flight attendant was clearly as frustrated and harried as the rest of us. I'm sure she had a dog or family of her own she was aching to get home to as well, and in her haste, she missed our row. I'd assumed she was going to turn back around to us after serving the other side, but she'd clearly moved beyond us with no intent of returning.

"Um ... excuse me," I said, likely beaming manically.

She whipped around and rather than returning my smile, snapped. "WHAT? DID YOU NEED SOMETHING?!?"

My pulse thrashed. I'm not used to being yelled at much of anywhere, and definitely not while strapped into a chair while hurtling bumpily through the clouds. "I'm sorry. ... I ... I ... I thought maybe you had missed our row by accident. I ..."

"What do you want?!"

"Cookie ... I guess. And I have this." I shakily held up the little drink coupon I had clutched in my palm. "Orange juice ... and whiskey ... if you have it."

She leveled her gaze at my husband. "Did you want something, too?"

"Uh, no. No, ma'am." He saw my eyes starting to mist up and grabbed my knee.

"Did I do something wrong?" I asked him. He assured me that I hadn't. Atop my already high level of fret, I suddenly feared I'd breached some kind of protocol and was now mortified to boot. It was a stupid cookie, for goodness sake; no airline personnel had threatened us with beheadings, as had happened to my friend Michael on an NYC-bound flight, and I could have a whole darn sleeve of cookies and a vat of spiked OJ in the comfort of my own home in the matter of a couple of hours. I felt dumb and ashamed and petty -- and I still wanted that freaking cookie.

I got it eventually -- slammed onto my tray table along with my free cocktail (she waved my proffered coupon away, and I took it as a gruff mea culpa) -- and I nervously nibbled every last crumb of it, making it last until our wheels hit the tarmac.

We received a customer survey from the airline a day later -- form language saying we know your flight was delayed, and as a valued Gold Medallion customer, we appreciate your feedback, et cetera. I didn't bother to send that in. Weather happens, people snap, a person remains cookie-less for several hours of their lives. But a few weeks later, I shared a few words with them about another flight.

"First Class flight attendant Candace Watson is the best I have encountered in years," I wrote. "Gentleman sitting next to me said, 'She's like a flight attendant from 20 years ago.' She's friendly, charming, deeply competent and just makes the whole thing pleasant. If you have an award you give out, please consider her. She's a credit to your airline."

I'm not especially prone to gushing, but Ms. Watson fundamentally understood something about her nervous charges. "I just treat this like I'm hosting a party in my home," she'd told us.

"I keep you fed, I keep you calm, I keep you distracted. And it doesn't cost me anything extra to smile." And she kept the cookies coming.

What do you think? Share your experiences below.

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