Monday, March 12, 2012

Ever knitted a dinosaur?

I knitted these guys for my dino-loving grandson Ryan for his 6th birthday. NOT life-sized!

The flight attendant from hell, part 2

The more things change, the worse they get, it seems.

Yesterday I wrote quite a long post about that incident involving an American Airlines flight attendant who “went berserk” on the plane, ranting over the PA system for 15 minutes about 9-11, the plane crashing, and other bizarre possibilities (screaming, at one point, “I’ll kill them all”).

Yes, this was an extreme case, but a few details have come out that I think are VERY strange.

The public are understandably “concerned” (read: terrified) about the possibility of something like this happening again. Flight attendants are supposed to keep everyone calm no matter what the situation, so this hellish rant was more than disturbing.

But in the aftermath, certain facts are emerging.  Alarmingly, it turns out that airlines do NOT screen flight attendants for mental illness. Pilots, yes. But pilots have an important job. I think the old idea that “stewardesses” are just there to keep everything jolly and mildly sexy still hangs around.

So if this woman is bipolar, as she claimed she was, she would not have been required to disclose it in applying for the job. Even if the airline knew about it, it would not have been grounds for letting her go.

I am all for hiring people with mental illnesses, given the fact that the huge majority of cases are manageable with medication and a regulated lifestyle. But how regulated is the life of a flight attendant? Sleep deprivation, constant major time zone shifts, meals coming sporadically if at all, meds accidentally left at home (and where do you get lithium if you’ve forgotten it?) – and add to this the current level of job uncertainty as American Airlines teeters on the verge of bankruptcy – and you have a potential recipe for disaster.

But there are no safeguards in place here. It seems to take a traumatic event like this one for hiring practices to come to light. Failing to screen flight attendants for ANY kind of medical disability is negligent and potentially dangerous.  In this age of lurking terrorism, the stakes are even higher. Flight attendants are, as the airlines are now scrambling to tell us, “first responders”. To say the least, they need their wits about them at all times.

Whenever anything weird and scary happens, other weirdness leaks out. Many of the headlines for this international news item referred to the woman as a “stewardess”, a term I haven’t heard in decades. The police report about this strange event said she was experiencing “mental lunacy”, a term that hasn’t been used for about 100 years!

Someone else described her tirade as a “word salad”, a way of containing and distancing the terror with an obscure, clinical term most people have never heard of.

Then we have this bestselling author, Heather Poole, a veteran flight attendant who just happens to have written a book called Cruising Attitude, popping up and saying, “It could have happened to any of us.”

Oh, really?

So any “stewardess”, at random, just picked out of the crowd, could have gone completely berserk and screamed for 15 minutes while on the job? Any flight attendant, perhaps stressed by job uncertainty, could have flipped out into a state of “mental lunacy”, needing to be carried off the plane in restraints?

We still have a deep dread and horror of mental illness, a put-them-in-shackles mentality. This buried unconscious reflex is what causes us to lapse into language that is shockingly obsolete. On the one hand, bipolar disorder has been sanitized as a kind of diabetes of the mind – and in the vast majority of cases, it is something like that. On the other, we see people who are experiencing a serious episode as “demonic” and “possessed”: attitudes that go back to when humankind was preverbal and terrified of any behaviour that threatened the safety of the band.

Back in the day, “stewardesses” traditionally took care of men’s needs, all the way up to (or down to) sexual release. Thus, the “Fly Me” advertising slogan that was popular 50 years ago. On the (best ever!) TV series Mad Men, a retro look at Madison Avenue in the ‘60s, Don Draper is practically accosted on a plane by a “stew” taking an aggressive sexual stance. They were all there for the picking, it seems. Even the title of that book, Cruising Attitude, has a suggestive tone: cruising for what, exactly?

And will this bizarre episode help Heather Poole’s sales? I can’t see how it could hurt. She just lucked out, I guess.

I believe all airlines should change their policy immediately and begin to rigorously screen flight attendants for mental illnesses, especially major ones like bipolar. I don’t think this is discriminatory, and in fact I believe it would ultimately protect applicants from getting into situations like this that they cannot control. It’s unlikely this woman will ever work again in her chosen career. If the airline knew about her condition but turned a blind eye, what does that say about them? Did they pretend it wasn’t there? Did they think not hiring her would violate her civil rights? Do her civil rights trump public safety?

Why are pilots so rigorously screened, when (according to the airlines) flight attendants also carry huge responsibility for safety? I think it’s the remnants of the “Fly Me” attitude. “Stews” just squeeze up and down the aisles in tight skirts, serving cocktails with a smile. They’re really not very important, subservient to the real crew, the guys who fly the plane.

You say that’s not true? That things have changed? Then where does this “mental lunacy” label come from? Will we now begin to call mentally challenged people “idiots” and “imbeciles”?

This woman did not “flip out” because of “job stress” and “economic uncertainty”. What happened to her could NOT “happen to anyone”. It could only happen to someone who is either extremely high on drugs, or seriously mentally ill. If it’s the kind of illness that requires regulation with medication, and the medication is cut off, we have a problem.

We have a problem that could have crashed that plane. Had it already taken off, had she been armed, had she been packed with explosives like a terrorist (and do you think it couldn’t happen? How carefully are flight attendants screened, if their mental health problems are being routinely ignored?), we would have had a disaster on an almost unimagineable scale.

Will there be a response to this obvious weakness in the system? I don’t think so. I think the policy will stay the same, because we don’t like to look at mental illness. We look away at the first opportunity, as if it isn’t really happening.

It’s lunacy, after all, a term that reverberates with an ancient and even primal terror.

Cruising Attitude by Heather Poole (hot off the presses, girls!)

This synopsis/blurb appeared on the web site.

Flying the not-so-friendly skies...

In her more than fifteen years as an airline flight attendant, Heather Poole has seen it all. She's witnessed all manner of bad behavior at 35,000 feet and knows what it takes for a traveler to become the most hated passenger onboard. She's slept in flight attendant crashpads in "Crew Gardens," Queens—sharing small bedrooms crammed with bunk beds with a parade of attractive women who come and go at all hours, prompting suspicious neighbors to jump to the very worst conclusions. She's watched passengers and coworkers alike escorted off the planes by police. She can tell you why it's a bad idea to fall for a pilot but can be a very good one (in her case) to date a business-class passenger. Heather knows everything about flying in a post-9/11 world—and she knows what goes on behind the scenes, things the passengers would never dream.

Heather's true stories in Cruising Attitude are surprising, hilarious, sometimes outrageously incredible—the very juiciest of "galley gossip" delightfully intermingled with the eye-opening, unforgettable chronicle of her fascinating life in the sky.