Surprisingly Friendly Skies

By Noah Graff

Coach Section on a United Flight

I recently had the pleasure of taking a 10 hour international United flight. Why did I fly the notoriously “unfriendly skies” when historically I have always hated United? The airline’s seats have the worst leg room of them all, unless you pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of not developing blood clots. The food — I don’t want to look at it, smell it, and definitely not taste it. Worst of all, United flight attendants often seem to ooze negativity straight from their pores. Too often they transmit a grouchy vibe and simply look like they don’t won’t to be there. I have to chuckle sometimes because it often feels like they are trying to live up to their stereotype of unfriendliness.

However, the price of the flight was decent and United was the only airline to offer a direct route to my destination, so I braved the expectedly unfriendly skies.

But this trip, I have to say, wasn’t an entirely negative experience. Some of the United folks were indeed unpleasant as I expected, but I’d say 50 percent of them were actually quite friendly to me, although they still complained about their nasty employer, which I believe is the true root of their sheer sourpussness.

Traveling both to and from my destination, I sat in the exit row, across from the jump seat that the flight attendants sit in, so I had the chance to actually get to know two of them. On the way to my destination, I talked a little while with a short African American flight attendant, in his 50s, who had been with United for over 20 years. He was friendly and personable but still glum as he complained to me about the company he worked for. He joined me in mocking the “breakfast” provided by the flight — one croissant, still half frozen, and horrible coffee. At morning chow time, the announcer referred to our morning piece of bread as a “breakfast snack,” as though she knew she would be lying if she referred to it as breakfast.

The flight attendant told me that the “breakfast snack” had only been implemented two or three months before, and he was clearly embarrassed by it. He brooded about United’s former CEO Jeff Smisek, who had just been forced to resign from the company after federal investigators found that United had created money losing direct flights from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, specifically to transport David Samson, the chairman of the New Jersey Port Authority, to his vacation home, in exchange for favors. Incidentally, Samson is also the guy behind the “Bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey. The flight attendant proceeded to detail Smisek’s golden parachute upon leaving United. After Smisek resigned, he received a separation payment of a $4.9 million lump sum. He also retained his company car, and lifetime flight and parking benefits. I’m not sure what the parking benefits are, all I know is the parking perk is something that I surely need living Chicago.

On the way back to sweet home Chicago, I met a really friendly flight attendant. She complimented me several times on my diligent diary writing. I had to finish chronicling my journey, something I try hard to do when I take big trips. She also complimented me on my sleeping ability in the horrible airplane seats. I told her that the only thing that made it possible to sleep was my mild narcolepsy condition. It’s a blessing and a curse for me. I can go into REM in about a minute, while it takes many people an hour or more. It’s a great condition for planes, terrible for meetings and lectures, and especially terrible while DRIVING!

I digress.

When I brought up my narcolepsy to the woman, I told her about Provigil, the truly wonderful medicine I take to combat the condition. Provigil was originally created for soldiers in the U.S. special forces to stay awake in combat. The drug does not constrict your blood vessels or boost your heart rate in the manner of amphetamines such as caffeine or Adderall, it just suppresses the chemicals in your brain that make you sleepy. It really is wonderful because when you take it you don’t feel hyper or anxious, you just don’t feel sleepy.

The flight attendant then told me that she and all her coworkers take Provigil too. Doctors can prescribe it for what they call “shift disorder,” the logical affect of having a job with unnatural hours. I also learned from her that the flight attendants on international flights have an area of their own under the main cabin, with bunk beds to sleep on. She said the beds are stacked on top of each other so closely that it feels like she is lying in a coffin. Maybe it feels like a coffin (whatever that feels like), but anything sounds better to me than sleeping in a coach airplane seat, which all seem designed to be in the most uncomfortable shape possible.

The flight attendant enthusiastically recounted some of her favorite destinations she flies to in Asia and South America, but lamented that the company is talking about decreasing the stay-overs in international destinations to a mere 18 hours. I asked her what the point was of working international flights if flight attendants have no time to spend where they land? She just smiled and shook her head, acknowledging that she didn’t know the answer. She also said she wondered if her body could even handle the proposed schedule.

If I worked for that company, I might be grumpy too.

Question: Are long work hours a curse or a gift?

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10 thoughts on “Surprisingly Friendly Skies

  1. Jerry Johnson

    Provigil is an awesome drug. I used it in Vietnam. Take one pill, and you want to paint the entire house without stopping !! Alert – Alive.

    Long work hours are the norm today if you want to succeed, especially in this industry.

  2. Karl

    Long work hours hummm, sounds like somebody needs to be thanking President Obama for his leadership and job creation skills. Can I get a Thank you Mr. President…

  3. Robert Hoffman

    Interesting comments about United Airlines. Just did a round trip of St. Louis to Cleveland. The airline magazine had an article written by the new CEO and he says that his goal is to change the culture to a more friendly and helpful one as he realizes that UA has a problem.
    BYW, the noise in the cabin was 92 DB on the Embraer 145. Not a pleasant flight.

  4. jd

    Why do you feel it was necessary to mention the flight attendance race and height? It adds nothing to the story, but it does something about you.

    1. Terry Donovan

      Seems you can’t write or read anything without someone trying to read in between the lines and making more of something out of it than it really is. JD relax.

  5. Fred

    Long hours of work? Or long hours of talking about work. Or long hours of work talking about your favorite sports team?

  6. Robert

    Most of the time, a gift. I love what I do, most of the time, so the long days are fine. I do not like domestic air travel as it has become such a commoditized cattle drive and it’s all about packing more people into a smaller space. There is no pride in the delivery of a quality experience anymore. International is a bit different on the non US carriers, however the prices for first and business has skyrocketed to ridiculous. Flight attendants are usually nice, if you treat them right. Sometimes, you just encounter a miserable power hungry human being that just should be doing something else, but I only find that occasionally. When I do, I just zone them out.


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