Unfriendly Skies

The pleasure of doing anything on stage is who might be in the audience that night, and I don’t mean celebrities.  Exiting the theater last night, I was greeted by two casually dressed blond women in their 50’s.

“We had to say hello,” said the taller one.  “I’ve worked for United Airlines as a flight attendant since the 60’s and have to say that was one of the more interesting angles on an airport I’ve ever seen.”

The first thing she commented on was the irony of all pre-recorded terminal announcements.

When an airport loses it’s functionality due to a possible terrorist crisis, the calm, canned message about not leaving your baggage unattended becomes truly ridiculous.  But the announcements continue because they are automated, adding further to the irony.  There isn’t a caring person behind the warning.  It just sounds like there is.

The conversation led quickly to security.  In the play, the Texan character argues that in airports, everything we think is there to protect us is nothing more than advanced theatrics.

“The checkpoints, the X-rays, the National Guard… I think we all know at this point they don’t really stop anybody. They’re a symbol of a barrier.  A gracious response to our fear of attack.”  (His cell phone rings, as he adds) “Not unlike my marriage.”

It’s a line that often gets a laugh, but this woman didn’t think it was funny.  “I see those kids at TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and they’re half asleep.  Jonesing for a cigarette with their shirts untucked.  When you fly out of Bun Gurion in Israel, or even Charles DeGaulle in Paris, you feel a level of tenseness even if you have nothing to hide.  Security in those places is no joke. They have Special Forces guys walking around.  There’s a pride and a seriousness we lack so utterly.  And terrorists know it.  They’re testing us right now.  Incident by incident.”

What she said next gave me chills.

“We’re the ones in control of your safety: it’s the flight attendants.  And because of what we know about the airplane, we’re the first to die.  That’s what happened on 9/11.  Kill a flight attendant to show you’re serious, and the others will submit, and give whatever information they have to about the aircraft to save their own life.”

She went on to describe how in her 30 years of working for United she has become an expert in reading people.  Call it psychological profiling or behavioral analytics or even a hunch.  But my new friend from United never sounded more confident about her skill.

“The reason we stand in front of that cockpit and say “welcome aboard” to every single passenger is to read them.  We say, “Hi there!” with a warm smile, but we’re really taking those few seconds to make an evaluation.  And I have strengthened that instinct more than you can imagine over the years. I can tell who is going to get air sick, who is going to get drunk, who is going to get all anxious and be difficult, and who is going to try and hit on me, all in about 3 seconds.  I can also tell who I’ll be able to turn to for help.  Who is the fireman, the veteran, the athlete?   They are my allies, though they may never know it.”

She went on to describe incidents where she was suspicious.  A person’s energy extends from their bodies in roughly a four-foot radius, I was told.  Something a calm or friendly face can’t cover… yet.  She has never been involved in a terrorist incident, thankfully, but she s preparing for it.

To bring this back to the theater, I will say that what terrorists must get better at is acting.  When we see these characters on the news, the ones that try and put bombs in their underwear, or set their shoes on fire, they look like the type you’d imagine, don’t they?

This won’t last long.  Along with learning how to assemble bombs in an airplane bathroom will come jovial pop cultural references, hipper dress, and a deeper cover of their more vile intensions.

I had a mess of feelings after this flight attendant told me she was really the last line of defense. And that it all came down to a personal gut feeling.  But I also understood that it was the purest form of self-preservation there can be.  She reads the behavior of each passenger for her own safety.  And what can be more reassuring than that?

“Congratulations on a thoughtful piece of work,” she said, turning to leave.  “And by the way, Continental doesn’t fly out of JFK.  Just Newark.  Something my friends will get a kick out of when I tell them they must see the show…”

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