Simon Calder: You can see why he'd had enough

The problem is deeper than Steven Slater: it is the airline industry itself, with its record of chronic over-supply, promiscuous passengers and failure to behave rationally

Wednesday 11 August 2010 00:00 BST

The surprise was not that Steven Slater chose to end his career as a flight attendant in such style on a hot, humid August day in New York, disappearing down the emergency chute of his grounded jet and emerging into aviation folklore equipped with two beers. Mr Slater has become an online sensation after his tirade against a passenger with whom he argued, shouting into the Tannoy system: "To the passenger who called me a motherfucker, fuck you... I've been in the business 28 years. I've had it. That's it."

He was merely following in a noble tradition of unconventional exits by US airline crew, which include a Delta captain who announced to his startled passengers: "They say that when you die and go to heaven, you have to change planes in Atlanta," before walking off the flight deck and abandoning his career.

No, the puzzling aspect of this story is that he worked for one of the world's more enlightened airlines, JetBlue. For almost a decade, the carrier founded by a visionary Mormon named David Neeleman has transformed the flying experience for tens of millions of travellers in North America – showing that even a short domestic hop can be a civilised experience. And Mr Neeleman decided the way to do that was to focus on the airline's staff.

"We're building a business out of changing people's lives that work for our company," he told me the last time we met, "thereby creating a wonderful transportation company, that people really want to fly, to use, and that therefore they fly more often. If we can continue to do that we'll continue to be successful."

So what went wrong? The problem runs far deeper than Mr Slater, his boss and the JetBlue operation: it is the airline industry itself, with its track record of chronic over-supply, low margins, promiscuous passengers (in the commercial sense, at least) and failure to behave like a rational industry.

Most other mature industries, from car-makers to computers, have evolved into a handful of global giants augmented by niche players. A combination of outdated nationalistic regulations and big corporate egos have suppressed the normal rules of business. That is why, for as long as JetBlue has flown, travellers in the US and worldwide have enjoyed transportation at below its real cost.

We passengers have been the winners, subsidised by an unholy, unwilling alliance of airline shareholders accepting sub-standard returns on investment, governments underwriting their national carriers with surreptitious subsidies – and, arguably, staff prepared to work for poor pay. Great while it lasts, for us at least, but an unhealthy state of affairs – whose impact is most keenly felt by those at the sharp end of the business.

The last time I boarded an EasyJet Airbus A319 at Gatwick, six seats were marked as off-limits to passengers. The reason: the airline wanted to reduce the number of cabin crew from four to three on some shorter journeys. Civil Aviation Authority rules insist on one flight attendant for every 50 passengers. That model Airbus (as used, incidentally, by JetBlue) has 156 seats. So the airline cut the capacity by half a dozen seats, preferring to leave space unsold rather than deploy an extra member of cabin crew.

Frustration is a familiar emotion to passengers who fly often – so just imagine how it afflicts the most frequent flyers of all, the cabin crew. Each season this year has brought fresh disruption. Snow grounded thousands of flights over Christmas and New Year; the Icelandic volcano wrought havoc in April; and so far this summer a panoply of groups of workers with a grievance have taken advantage of their industrial muscle to shred the schedules. Spain's air-traffic controllers are next in the queue to stop playing the ceaseless game of three-dimensional chess that keeps you and me airborne, while BAA airport staff are deciding on industrial action later this month.

Imagine if you had absolutely no control over when, or even where, you finished work for the day – and that you faced the fury of several hundred angry people who blamed you for events way beyond your control. Now you may begin to understand Mr Slater's decision to deploy the slide for one last, glorious exit.

The incident has a serious dimension, because it inevitably raises concerns about the mental stability of the people whose job it is to keep you and me safe. Manifestations of air rage among cabin crew are thankfully so rare that the occasional story – such as the drunk Aeroflot steward who beat up several passengers – still make the headlines. Far more seriously, some pilots have decided to commit suicide while at the controls of an aircraft. Even though the mental state of the men and women on the flight deck is closely monitored, history shows how tragic can be the effect of an individual "snapping" under pressure.

Right now, few industries are under as much pressure as aviation. Neeleman told me about keeping his staff "motivated and excited and juiced for battle", a strategy that has mostly paid off handsomely but occasionally collides with human frailty, as demonstrated on that JetBlue flight.

Having worked through a couple of long, hot summers as an aircraft cleaner and security guard at Gatwick, and being fortunate enough these days to be a passenger instead, I am constantly impressed by the good humour and professionalism of almost everyone working in the aviation industry – whether they work for a traditional, "full-service" airline or the cheapest of no-frills operators.

The bitter British Airways cabin crew dispute has, at its root, the loss-making airline's desperation to cut costs by making crew work harder. Yet there appears to be no shortage of applicants prepared to join BA on inferior contracts as members of "new fleet", currently undergoing training and expected to be deployed in November.

Flying may long ago have shed its glamour, yet the chance to travel the world and be paid for it – however modestly – still has plenty of allure.

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