You probably have heard about Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who snapped like dry twig when a female passenger refused to sit as instructed after a landing at New York’s JFK Airport, pulled out her luggage from the overhead compartment, bonking him on the head, then refused to apologize and cursed at him. Slater, emulating a scene from a Chris Farley movie that never got made, took to the public address system to curse out all the passengers, grabbed a beer, launched the emergency chute, slid down it, and fled the plane and the airport.
He was later arrested at home. Sources told NBC that he was “having a bad day.”
What has been just as shocking as Slater’s meltdown (imagine this guy in a mid-flight crisis!) is the high percentage on web commenters who are sympathetic with him, calling him a “folk hero,” asserting that it was the passenger who should have been arrested, and in an amazing number of comments, arguing that he should be welcomed back to Jet Blue with open arms.
What is going on here? I think it’s a case of empathy—who hasn’t wanted to go bananas at work when the jerks and fools become overwhelming?—- blotting out the big ethical picture. Yes: the passenger was wrong—rude, abusive, mean, disruptive. Slater, however, was supposed to be a trained and reliable professional, and had the duty of handling the situation rationally and skillfully. Apparently he “demanded” an apology; that was where his breakdown officially started. Ethical professionals don’t demand apologies; that abandons professionalism and places the encounter on a personal basis. Strike One. Then he lost his temper. Strike Two. He was trained to keep calm and in control of his emotions, but didn’t. This precipitated a tantrum worthy of a five-year old, a complete breach of his professional duty. Strike Three. He acted out his rage by misusing the plane’s equipment (Strike Four) and insulting the innocent passengers who did nothing wrong except flying Jet Blue the day an incompetent flight attendant was on duty. That was unfair, disrespectful, and unforgivable…and Strike Five. At that point, when he owed everyone else an apology, he breached safety procedures—reckless, irresponsible, and Strike Six—and ran away from his duties and accountability. Strike Seven: cowardly, irresponsible, and a breach of the trust placed in him by his employers.
Flight attendants have remained calm and performed their duties during hijackings, attempted terrorist attacks, storms, emergency landings, unexpected births and more, but Steven Slater threw a fit over one obnoxious passenger and a bump on the head. There is absolutely nothing in his conduct to praise or feel sympathy for. He was a terrible flight attendant, and nothing excuses his actions. Apparently he has some difficult personal issues right now: it doesn’t matter. If he was incapable of handling his duties professionally, it was his obligation to seek a leave of absence. His personal problems, no matter what they were, could never justify breaching his professional duties in so many ways, in such outrageous fashion. Now defenders of his meltdown are citing the fact that he is battling substance abuse problems. Perfect: now his tantrum will cause the reliability of millions of recovering addicts and alcoholics doing exemplary jobs in various professions to be questioned.
Nobody should defend Slater, and if someone you know tries, set them straight, please. There is nothing admirable or excusable about his conduct.