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Off his trolley? Angry air steward slides to freedom

JetBlue may not be the "world's favourite airline", but its recently departed employee, Steven Slater, has surely just secured himself the status of being the world's favourite air steward.

Mr Slater was entirely anonymous until a passenger hit him in the head with her overhead baggage aboard a flight taxiing at New York's John F Kennedy Airport on Monday. But when the passenger refused to apologise for her actions, Mr Slater struck a blow for put-upon flight attendants aboard budget airlines everywhere. He announced his immediate retirement over the intercom and promptly exited the aeroplane via its emergency slide, snaffling a couple of beers from the refreshments trolley for good measure.

Mr Slater, who was freed on £2,500 bail yesterday on charges of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing, found himself in the unlikely position of being an instant folk hero. The incident vaulted its 38-year-old protagonist into the pantheon of aviation superstars alongside Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who put his aircraft down safely on the Hudson River after a flock of birds went into the engines.

And if the drinks-cart veteran was rueing his astonishing adieu as he sat in a Queens courtroom yesterday, it must have been some consolation that hordes around the land were crowding Facebook and Twitter pages to praise the manner of his departure from the aircraft – and presumably his career – and printing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Free Steven Slater".

The particulars of Mr Slater's sudden departure were just as engaging as the broad strokes. His duel with an unruly passenger began when his foe started to take down her bag from an overhead locker too soon after landing, and Mr Slater asked her to wait. The passenger paid no attention, retrieved her bag anyway and in the process banged the attendant on the head. She refused to apologise and swore at him.

That was when the cabin pressure, so to speak, got too much for Mr Slater. According to witnesses, he used the public address system to tell the woman exactly what he thought of her. "To the passenger who called me a motherfucker, fuck you," he stormed. "I've been in the business 28 years. I've had it. That's it."

Then he pulled a lever to activate the emergency evacuation chute and slid down. History does not record whether he removed his shoes first.

Mr Slater commutes between New York and California, where he has been caring for his dying mother, once a flight attendant herself, as he did for his father, a former pilot who died after suffering Lou Gehrig's disease – a form of motor neurone disease.

Mr Slater's MySpace page appears to express what might be termed flamboyant ambivalence about his job. "Chances are I am flying 35,000ft somewhere over the rainbow on my way to some semi-fabulous JetBlue Airways destination!" he writes. "Truly, some are better than others. But I am enjoying being back in the skies and seeing them all."

His journey yesterday was not especially exotic. After hitting the tarmac, he retrieved a bag from the terminal, took the train to a car park and drove to his home in nearby Queens. Within minutes, the street was swarming with airport police and Mr Slater, still wearing a grin, was taken into custody.

Of all his alleged crimes, it seems that activating the emergency slide was especially egregious, since anyone underneath it could have been injured.

However, none of that mattered much to ordinary Americans hearing his tale. After all, who hasn't fantasised about "telling your boss to take this job and shove it", mused Phil Catelinet, from Brooklyn, who was one of the passengers who witnessed the incident. He added: "It's pretty much the craziest thing I have ever seen on a plane."