Secrets of the Skies

Pulling back the curtain on the mile-high mavens

by Will O'Bryan
Published on June 29, 2011, 11:36pm | Comments

From the days of Pan Am Clipper flying boats plying the Pacific and Alexander Calder's wildly painted Braniff jets, to today's first-class suites aboard gigantic new A380 super jumbos, airline travel has offered a slice of the same romance of ocean liners and streamlined transcontinental trains. But while people have roamed the seas and plains for millennia, flying is a relatively new feature of the human experience – one that can be exhilarating and exotic. Or mundane and frustrating as airlines struggle to fill every seat and charge for every perk.


(illustration by Todd Franson with elements from ©iStockphoto/Viktor Chornobay & 4x6)

As with all human endeavors, LGBT people are along for the ride. Consider that Community Marketing Inc. of San Francisco reports that LGBT travel is worth more than $70 billion, and that's just domestically. Obviously, we must do our share of flying. Which doesn't mean we're always in the seats, however. Some of the tribe are onboard or behind the counters, working in this industry that allows us to jet through the clouds. While there are no doubt LGBT people hauling luggage or sitting in the cockpit, we spoke to a few with whom passengers have the most direct contact on travels -- flight attendants and service representatives.

With a strict respect for anonymity, four agreed to offer a peek behind that galley curtain, to share perspectives, peccadilloes and at least a little bit of dirt.

Collectively, these four have worked for six different airlines. Three are gay men, one is a lesbian, and combined they represent 55 years in the industry. They have bachelors' degrees, one has a master's, and one did a stint in the Peace Corps. Three live in D.C., while a fourth lived here for a time. And not a one has any respect for the dramatic exit of that most infamous of gay flight attendants, Steven Slater, who opened the door of a JetBlue plane on the tarmac and slid down the emergency slide and into oblivion after a scuffle with a passenger. They do, however, seem to have a bit of empathy.

FLYING IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES

FORREST GUMP ADVISED that life and a box of assorted chocolates were similar in that you never knew what you were going to get. Flying can be much the same. Sometimes you're on a half-empty flight that left the gate on time, staffed by flight attendants who think you deserve some free drinks. Or perhaps you've been advised that a wrinkle has turned your reserved exit-row aisle seat into a non-reclining middle seat on a full flight that's going to be sitting on the tarmac for an hour. You just never know. You can, however, shoot for a little insurance. A box of chocolates, for example, can go a very long way – particularly if it's a sealed box you purchase once you've cleared security.

''My whole intention when you get on that plane – and when I'm flying it is my plane – is that you're in my home and you're going to walk away from my home having been treated very well, regardless of whether you gave me chocolates,'' says a purser who usually works the front of the cabin. ''But when you go that extra step, I'm like, 'Wow, that was so thoughtful.' You deserve a little bit more because you thought a little bit out of the box to be a little bit nicer to me. Therefore you should get that in return, a little more than I would already do.

''I will do everything possible, and tell my crew that you are to be taken care of. I'll send champagne back to you. I'll do everything I can to make the coach experience as pleasant as possible for you if there's no way I can move you up front.''

Our flying femme pragmatically agrees that a little treat is a welcome gesture, though cautions it won't make miracles.

''It's going to get you the crew coming over to say thanks,'' she says. ''Someone is probably going to give you a free drink. You're going to get smiled at a lot. If you need something, they'll probably try harder to find it.

''That doesn't happen as much as it used to. Now [passengers are] mad about paying for their luggage. They're mad about their seat being small. They're mad about this, that and the other. There's room or there's not. A box of chocolates isn't going to help you.''

Although that little something for the cabin crew cannot change the laws of physics, another flight attendant confirms that it's a worthwhile investment, adding that he may even say goodbye to you with a bottle of wine from the premium cabin – the grown-up size, not the airplane mini – to return your goodwill.

Our ground agent notes that such a gift – a safe bet for about $15, even if it only results in a few smiles – should not be cash. That's just tacky.

''Tips make me very uncomfortable,'' he says. ''Technically, we're not supposed to accept tips. I'm paid to do my job. Though there are people who are like, 'Hell, yeah, I'll take it.' But if there's a line out the door and we're busy and people are frazzled for the holidays and you came up and said, 'Hey, I know you're having a busy day and just wanted to give you guys this box of cookies,' that turns the mood around on a dime. Only the most hardened bitches won't smile. It turns the mood around completely.''

Sometimes all you need to do for a little extra TLC is show your rainbow colors. While being straight won't hurt you, the gays aren't necessarily bashful about going the extra mile for one of their own.

''I'll walk by and go, 'Hey!''' says the female flight attendant. ''I think that's human nature. Do you identify with someone in a smaller group that's your group? Sure. You're going to be more interested in what they're doing, where they're going, if you can help them.''

The customer service rep is particularly sensitive to his transgender customers, who may have their own anxieties in the instances where they are presenting as a gender that does not match their travel documents.

''We've seen a number of transgender passengers and I don't think the other employees know how to handle it. The passenger will walk away and they'll start snickering. 'Oh, did you see that?''' he says. ''They're driving down a rough road. I couldn't even begin to imagine being born one way and knowing inside me I'm something else. I couldn't begin to imagine how that must feel, but a little sensitivity can go a long way.''

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

WHILE SOME MAY lament the departure from the glamorous yesteryear of flying, with airborne lounges in coach and passengers dressing for the occasion, there are probably few in the LGBT community who would want to return to women-only flight attendants, possibly in hot pants, catering to chain-smoking businessmen with invitations to ''fly me.''

That's not to say that sex has disappeared from the friendly skies. Not by a long shot. Of these four professionals, two have been inducted into the ''Mile-High Club,'' reserved for those who have managed some overtly sexual expressions in the crowded confines of an airplane cabin.

''It was never in the bathroom,'' confesses the service rep, who has also worked in the cabin. ''It was the back galley with two of them, and passenger seats with the other two. There's eye contact. It just happens.''

Our purser agrees, even if he headed to the front of the plane rather than the back.

''I'm sorry – pilots are fucking hot,'' he says, explaining that his midair dalliances have included two pilots. ''You get these manly, military guys. Most of them are former military. They're just hot.''

Though only two of the four employees interviewed are club members, they all have tips for those hoping to join: Pick a night flight and be quiet. Otherwise, the airline employees are duty-bound to bar you from the club – at least in theory.

The landside rep remembers letting nature take its course during his airborne days.

''I've seen it happen,'' he says. ''I don't care, honestly. If you want to have sex in that nasty bathroom, go for it. I've seen people coming out of the bathroom and all the flight attendants knew. We just stood in the galley and clapped when they came out. They just kind of grinned and went back to their seats. The best part is when they go back to separate seats to join their significant others.

''I'm not there to judge your escapades. Just don't make a mess. Don't inhibit other people. Keep it calm. Keep it fast.''

But while this same employee is a member of the club and welcomes you to join – discretely – he's not exactly proud of his status.

''If I could redo stuff like that, I wouldn't do it," he says. "It's a severe lack of judgment. And if you are discovered, it is immediate termination.''

Our female flier, not one to partake in partying herself, is no stranger to at least observing lack of judgment, explaining that there is still plenty to see on the ground, as the party doesn't necessarily end when you land.

''I'm actually an anomaly in more ways than one, being the gay girl and also the non-drinker. I'm pretty boring,'' she says, explaining that while she's not the center of any layover crew parties, she's had a bird's-eye view. ''That stuff happens, though more internationally than domestically. International has those long layovers and the crew stays together, so there's more camaraderie. It all depends on the destination. In South America it's pretty much a given that there's going to be some raunchy stuff going on. You've got to be careful, because the locals are there to have a good time, but they're going to rip you off every which way they can.''

Her uninitiated male counterpart may have stopped short of joining the Mile-High Club, but he's far from chaste.

''My wildest crew party? I'm not really a wild person. I'm thinking back to a London layover where we all went drinking and I went back with one of my crewmembers, and one of the gals spent the night in the pilot's room.

"That's not par for the course. That's an extra-special layover.''

FAMOUSLY FRIENDLY OR FOUL

AS THEY SAY, D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people. Although that's a little cruel – and changing by the day, as any hip Washingtonian will tell you – it does mean a celebrity sighting in Washington is more likely to be John Roberts than Julia Roberts.

One D.C. crewmember's sighting is pretty typical: ''I had Alan Greenspan not too long ago. And his wife, Andrea Mitchell. She is gorgeous and wore beautiful shoes. They were quiet and sat and read the paper the entire time. It's not unusual on a Friday afternoon to have three or four representatives or senators. I think my record is 10.''

But it's not all politics. That same frequent flier often spies Wonder Woman up in the air.

''My favorite celebrity – I've had her a couple times – is Lynda Carter,'' he says of the Potomac, Md.-based celeb. ''She orders a fruit plate, but she always sleeps, so you never even serve her. She's never made up, always in a ball cap with her ponytail through the back.''

Considering mobility is the name of the airline game, celebrity sightings need not take place via any of the D.C.-Baltimore area's three airports. The purser was nowhere near D.C. when he had the chance to serve Whitney Houston – though it's not an experience he'd care to repeat.

''Whitney Houston was horrible,'' he says flatly. ''I went to ask what beverage she would like and her assistant immediately cut me off, explained to me that I do not speak to her, only through her assistant. When I sat the drink down, she just sort of waved me away. And she kept hitting the call button the entire flight. They needed this, they needed that – stupid things. 'I need a pencil.' 'I need a pen.' 'I need paper.' You have 40 people with you! Why do you need this stuff from me?''

For the lady of plane, she gets a kick not from the star power but from the firepower.

''Oh, I'm terrible -- I never know who anybody is,'' she says. ''People come back and they're like, 'So and so is onboard.' 'Who?' I've had politicians on, nobody who's really fun. One of the fun things about Washington is how many guns you'll have onboard. All the Secret Service guys, FBI, all those kinds of people are traveling with their weapons. I've been on flights where there are 15 to 20 guys with not just small arms, but long guns, rifles. They bring all that stuff onboard. There's paperwork for them and it's all official, but that's kind of fun.''

The most star-struck of the lot would have to be our man on the ground, who found himself tongue-tied in the presence of the world's best-known ape lady.

''I had Jane Goodall check-in for a flight,'' he remembers. ''I've never been really crazy over a celebrity, but I couldn't even talk. It was like meeting Jesus. She travels with a stuffed chimpanzee [that has its] own passport. She was absolutely delightful, just so pleasant.''

HIGH-FLYING HOMOPHOBIA

WHEN IT COMES to the scent of hate in the air, it's a mixed bag. Two of the men say they've faced it to some degree, while one has not. The woman crewmember has not had to face down homophobia or even the sort sexual harassment that likely befell her high-flying predecessors.

''I haven't really dealt with that,'' she says. ''I probably don't give off that thing where I want you to flirt with me. I have really short hair. If you know anything, you can see me coming a mile away.''

Otherwise, she says, ''I'm pretty invisible. I get a bit of that thing where I can hear what people really think. When I first started, people just assumed I was straight and it was, 'Aw, we're flying with a bunch of gay men again.'''

People – particularly the passengers – are apparently less likely to pull punches with the fellahs.

''I had a passenger and her bags would not fit in the overhead bin,'' the purser recalls. ''She was in the last row of first class. I said, 'Ma'am, it's not fitting. We're going to have to check it.' She said she'd put it under the seat, but it was going to block the row, it wouldn't work. She turned on me and said, 'Who the fuck do you think you are, you fucking faggot flight attendant, to tell me what to do?' I said, 'Hold that thought.' The captain was already coming out of the cockpit because he heard her yell that at me.''

She never left the ground, at least not on that flight.

''I had another incident with a passenger because I cut him off from drinking. He said to one of my crew, 'What's with the faggot? He's not going to let me drink?' I stopped at his seat and said, 'Hi, I'm the lead faggot who cut you off. The reason I cut you off is because I felt it was unsafe. I want you to arrive safely.' I just approached it head-on, without emotion.''

The employee on the ground got his big dose of homophobia when he was still in the air. Turns out trying to stow those oversized bags truly brings out the worst in people.

''We were on the ground and he was trying to shove his bag up in the overhead bin,'' he says of this particular passenger. ''I said, 'Be gentle. It will go in there.' And he said, 'I don't need advice from a faggot.' 'Well, actually now you can take your bag and get off the airplane.' He ended up apologizing, saying he'd had a really rough day. I understand that, but you need to watch your language. He flew, but I made another flight attendant serve him.''

In light of these types of experiences, none of the four are particularly surprised by the on-air rant by a Southwest Airlines pilot currently making the Internet rounds in which that pilot speaks at length about all the ''fag,'' ''granny'' and ''grande'' flight attendants that lessen his chances of lovin' on his layovers.

The four tend to grant that there is still something of an old boys club in the cockpit, though they're bothered to varying degrees.

''I think people go a little overboard with what they really mean,'' says the lesbian flight attendant. But, says the purser, ''If they really feel that strongly, how can I trust that person to do the right thing to keep me safe on that plane?''

INSIDE SCOOP

THE MOST VALUABLE information these four impart is to share a bit about the vagaries of air travel. The customer service representative would like you to know that among his particular powers, he cannot waive your baggage fee. It might also be helpful to know that when an employee drops the ball, it's the employee who is often liable for an FAA fine, not the airline.

''We have to brief our exit rows before we leave to make sure people fully understand what their responsibility is,'' the purser explains. ''If we don't do that and someone who works for FAA is onboard and they observe that we didn't do that, that's a $5,000 fine. There's a weight limit for the closet. If the FAA comes onboard and they see it's overloaded, I'm fined for that. It's not the airline, it's me. I cannot step off the plane to help a mom set up her stroller. I would love to help, but I can't.''

He can't help because if he is manning the door to the plane during boarding or deplaning, he can only step away from that post in the case of an emergency. It's not that he's being a jerk, as it might appear.

Similarly, when you try to use the lavatory while the seatbelt sign is lit, you'll have to forgive our lesbian crewmember for not telling you clearly whether you may or may not use the facilities.

''You're gonna barf, pee your pants, whatever, you don't care that the seatbelt sign is on,'' she sympathizes, explaining it's a technical question of who is responsible at that point. ''I have to make sure that you know that seatbelt sign is on. I'm not going to tackle you and throw you back into your seat. But I've got to make sure that you know the seatbelt sign is on, to put that risk – and the risk of that FAA fine – back on you.''

She admits that the ambiguity of the answer may be frustrating. ''I can't say, 'Go to the bathroom.' I can't say that. Sometimes people get aggravated, because they feel like they can't get a straight answer out of us. But I can't tell you that.''

Another secret of the skies may be that airline employees seem to genuinely love their jobs, though some more than others. Some see it as something more than just a job, one that's just too difficult to walk away from.

''It's more of a lifestyle and you kind of get sucked into it," says one of the guys. "There's a lot of freedom. And it's a very social experience. If you enjoy interacting with people, it's the thing to do.''

And then there's the purser, who not only still gets ''a thrill when that plane takes off'' but is genuinely happy to do his best work.

''I truly enjoy the fact that for whatever length of time we're on the plane, I have that opportunity to make it a very good experience for you. I enjoy that. It makes me feel good.''

For the customer service representative, it's a job filled with passion.

''You'd be hard-pressed to find people who absolutely hate the job,'' he says. ''And once you do it, it is always in your blood. You will always think about it, the fun you had. I just couldn't see myself doing anything else.''


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