NEW YORK—It has been a long time since flight attendant was a glamorous job title. The hours are long. Passengers with feelings of entitlement bump up against new no-frills policies. Babies scream. Security precautions grate but must be enforced. Airlines demand lightning-quick turnarounds, so attendants herd passengers and pry gum out of seat cushions with the grim speed of an Indy pit crew. Everyone, it seems, is in a bad mood.
On Monday, a JetBlue attendant named Steven Slater snapped on the tarmac of Kennedy International Airport, authorities said.
After a dispute with a passenger who stood to fetch his luggage too soon on a full flight just in from Pittsburgh, Slater, a career flight attendant, had had enough.
He got on the intercom, let loose a string of invective, pulled the lever that activates the emergency-evacuation chute and slid down, making a dramatic exit not only from the plane but, one imagines, also his airline career.
On his way out the door, he paused to grab a beer from the beverage cart. Then he ran to the employee parking lot and drove off, the authorities said.
He was arrested at his home in Queens, a few miles from the airport, and charged with felony counts of criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.
“When they hit that emergency chute, it drops down quickly within seconds,” a law enforcement official said. “If someone was on the ground and it came down without warning, someone could be injured or killed.”
Tuesday, Slater was granted bail by a New York judge. Defence lawyer Howard Turman asked he be released without bail. The judge instead set bail at $2,500.
Slater smiled slightly as he was escorted into the courtroom.
In arguing against bail, Turman said Slater’s mother has lung cancer.
Passenger Phil Catelinet said he heard the profanity-laced announcement on Flight 1052 from Pittsburgh, which he described as “the most interesting part of the day to that point,” but didn’t see Slater use the exit slide or grab the beer.
It wasn’t until he saw Slater on an airport train and overheard him talking about the escapade that he put it all together.
“He was smiling. He was happy he’d done this,” Catelinet told NBC’s Today.
Slater appeared “pretty relieved” and “seemed like he was looking forward to whatever comes next careerwise,” Catelinet told CBS’ Early Show.
In a statement, JetBlue said it was working with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to investigate the episode.
“At no time was the security or safety of our customers or crew members at risk,” the company said.
According to his online profiles, Slater has been the leader of JetBlue’s uniform redesign committee and a member of the airline’s in-flight values committee. Neighbors in California, where Slater grew up, said he had recently been caring for his dying mother, a retired flight attendant, and had done the same for his father, a pilot.
The contretemps Monday unfolded as JetBlue Flight 1052, an Embraer 190, landed at Kennedy around noon – on time – and pulled up to the gate, said a law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing.
The official offered the following account:
One passenger got out of his seat to retrieve his belongings from the overhead compartment before the crew had given permission. Slater instructed the man to remain seated. The passenger defied him. Slater reached the passenger just as he pulled down his luggage, which struck Slater in the head.
Slater asked for an apology. The passenger instead cursed at him. Slater got on the plane’s public address system and cursed out the passenger for all to hear. After citing his 20 years in the airline industry, he blurted out, “That’s enough.” He then activated the inflatable evacuation slide at a service exit and left the world of flight attending behind.
In short order, his gray two-story house was swarmed by police officers.
“It was like there was a hostage in there,” said Curt Krakowski, who was working on the deck of a house across the street.
Slater, Krakowski said, “had a smile on his face when the cops brought him out, like, ‘Yeah, big deal.”’ Slater was taken to a Port Authority police building at the airport and was expected to be held overnight.
One person familiar with the investigation said JetBlue took more than 20 minutes to notify the Port Authority police, allowing Slater time to get home. A spokesman for the airline declined to comment when asked about the delay.
The episode is the latest round in what is seen as an increasingly hostile relationship between airlines and passengers.
A few weeks ago, an Air France flight attendant was arrested for stealing the wallets of first-class passengers. Last year, a Canadian singer parodied United Airlines on YouTube in a series of songs about how the airline broke his guitar.
A new study by the International Air Transport Association found an increase in instances of disgruntled passengers and violence on planes, with the chief cause being passengers who refuse to obey safety orders.
The portrait of Slater that emerges from interviews with neighbors and friends and from profiles on MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn shows a man with mixed feelings about his job.
Photographs show him in the mountains of El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico and sitting behind the wheel of a convertible.
“Steven Slater has visited 22 percent of the countries in the world!” the MySpace page announces.
Yes, and Pittsburgh, too.
“Chances are I am flying 35,000 feet somewhere over the rainbow on my way to some semi-fabulous JetBlue Airways destination!” the MySpace page says. “Truly, some are better than others. But I am enjoying being back in the skies and seeing them all.”
A former roommate, John Rochelle, said Slater was seldom home. When Slater was not working, Rochelle said, he was usually in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, caring for his sick mother.
A neighbor there, Ron Franz, was hard-pressed to explain Slater’s actions on the plane Monday.
“It could be the pressure of his mother’s illness because that’s not the type of behavior or conduct that Steve exhibits,” Franz said.
But a former flight attendant, Janet Bavasso, who lives next door to Slater in Queens, found nothing mysterious at all.
“Enough is enough – good for him,” Bavasso said. “If he would have called me, I would have picked him up.”