The Ruthless Enforcement of Arbitrary Rules

One thing I've noticed over the past few years of frequent traveling is that airline cabin staffers have it pretty bad. Working with air passengers in various capacities is a good job, don't get me wrong; but it is a hard one.

What got me thinking about this was a recent flight where I noticed one of the flight attendants being extremely officious and stern with passengers who were keeping to themselves. She kept pestering people at every opportunity: about their bags, the window shade, the imperceptible pitch of the seatback, everything. I was reminded of some particularly nasty elementary school teachers in my past which seemed to take great pleasure in the ruthless enforcement of seemingly arbitrary rules, and this might have been an example of the same.

But trust me, I'm not about to put this on the flight attendant. The changing face of the air traveling public has gone from amiable jet-setters and professionals to what we have today: snotty, unruly fourth graders. Sadly, fourth graders must be treated accordingly. And in this example, safety precautions are not trivial, such as where you write your name and homeroom on the math test. But the vigor of the enforcement, in my personal opinion, varies widely.

I understand that these rules (seatback, electronic devices, luggage, window shade, etc.) are rooted in concerns for passenger safety and are not to be argued. But seriously, if you're in first class on a long-haul, no one is going to bitch at you for having your briefcase at your feet or your window shade down during landing. Why? Because you're a premium customer and potentially even an important person--and hassling you is a bad, bad thing. I know I've experienced it and lots of others have as well. It always begs the question as to why in economy class I always feel I'm just one wrong move away from a detention slip. Yet I never feel that familiar pang of youthful fear when I'm in the front of the plane.

At the risk of descending into conspiracy theory territory, this might be because the price of your ticket carries with it certain intangible "service quality" elements. When it comes to air travel, in fact, the phrase "a smile costs nothing" may not apply any longer. I wonder then if cabin staff are supposed to be a little less nice on purpose, or if it just comes with the territory. The overwhelming majority of on-board attendants I encounter are excellent people, who possess far above-average senses of humor (probably a job requirement). Also, you may notice that I pointedly avoided naming names as to which airlines did what in my experiences. I won't share names, but as many a schoolteacher would say, "You know who you are."

Road Warrior • Miami • Madrid • www.amadeus.com

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