Well past the golden age of flying they remain magnetic. With impeccable hair, orderly posture and chipper uniform, they breeze by you through security, march in little flocks down the terminal, gaze into computer screens in which no one has ever seen the other side and always greet you with suspicion and a smile.
Their authority is daubed in mystery, intrigue and just a little bit of sex. Where are they going? Where have they been? No matter how many times you might ask, you can never quite grasp, exactly, what their lives are like. Where do they sleep? What do they do when they’re not here? How do they cope with this, that, or the other?
Before lockdown, I saw flight attendants as another cog churning through this sterile travelers’ morass, reminders I’m marooned in this system of human loading docks for at least the next few hours. I hated flying, I hated everything about it. Airports turned me into a huffing and puffing, jaded prick — not my usual curious and joyful self. Always rushed and anxious, stuck behind the weird families with thirty bags, waiting in line after line, subservient to some objectively stupid, rude and power-drunk TSA agent, the overpriced and shitty food, the slow walkers, the crying children, the nicotine withdraw, the whole thing was dehumanizing.
Then, suddenly, all that vanished. There was no haste. The airport doors opened upon a sparse, glistening checkpoint. People were courteous. You could walk from the curb onto the plane in 10 minutes and without fear of being squashed in a seat next to some Instagram-addicted meat sack with bed head, flip-flops and a pink sweatsuit. And during that time the cab to the airport was often more expensive than the ticket itself. It was a modicum of what flying must have been like generations ago — easy, pleasant and luxurious.
Like any rebellious, granny-slaughtering, enemy of the state, I took many trips during lockdown, all of them essential. Stay at home? According to science, that only applied to the olds, the fats, the sicks and Democrats. There remained nothing morally wrong, or illegal, with living life normally as best you could. In fact, if you were a sane, compassionate and educated person it was your duty to take your chances in catching the bug. It’s here to stay. If infected, you’re going to make it — and probably with minimal symptoms. Before the government changed the definition of ‘herd immunity,’ it meant that which is naturally acquired in a population.
For me, one of that dystopian year’s pleasant side effects has been a completely altered perception of air travel. I’d never relaxed in an airport or on a plane before. With all the wee horrors associated with air travel out of the way, I had plenty of time to reflect on just how miraculous it is to fly. This nearly divine thing we do every day deserves a lot more reverence, I began to see, and I’d become a dick about it.
So does the crew. The friendly skies run on shame, tough love and just the right amount of emotional manipulation. Perhaps, that’s all part of the training. Who doesn’t have the tiniest desire to be in the good graces of a flight attendant? How many times have you wondered after an abrupt interaction, does she like me? Am I smiling too much, or not enough? Before safety videos aired on the seatback screen in front of you, it felt rude not to give the flight attendant’s mindless pantomime your attention, no matter how many times you’d seen it done before.
They’re operatives in a complex system moving things along with cold facility but they’re far from bureaucrats. It’s a predominantly female profession defined by having jurisdiction over a congregation, but unlike teachers they are infallible. They are perhaps the closest thing we encounter daily to benevolent authoritarians.
You get the impression the average flight attendant carries low-level disdain for the public. It’s the perfect job for someone who loves service but hates people. At the airport, the customer is always wrong — and the flight attendant wouldn’t have it any other way. Even that ugly, utilitarian term ‘flight attendant’ has cheapened the job. What we once called a steward or stewardess — defined as a person who supervises arrangements, maintains order, or looks after another’s property — imparted a rightful sense of dignity to the profession and was more accurate.
Half the population treats them like minimum wage coffee slingers, but their closest relatives live in another century, the stewards of great houses and vessels. No matter how sullied their workplace becomes, they’re still more Mrs Hughes, Anna or Thomas from Downton Abbey than Bon Qui Qui from King Burger. Most people don’t see that. And if they have a reputation of being bitchy, I’d say that’s why.
The airports are full again but I’m not the same person I was. Our government may be attempting to instigate a civil war, but some resets are good — the ones that come from within. During a delay at LaGuardia last week, a whiny gray toad approached the gate agent to gripe and grumble.
‘I just don’t understand what’s going on,’ she nagged. I wasn’t signing and stamping my feet at the hold up. I felt at peace. Instead of being on her side, as I may have been 18 months ago, the muted incredulity on the uniformed man’s face, as the woman droned on and threw her hands up, made me smile. I bet he and I hate all the same things, I thought, starting with this old bag.