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How not to enrage your flight attendant

By Robert Reid, Special to CNN
  • Robert Reid: Steven Slater's dramatic exit from plane (and job) was vicarious thrill for many
  • Evolution of airline rules has seemed designed to create conflict like this, he says
  • He says flight attendants get not-great pay and deal with obnoxious passengers
  • Reid: Follow some simple ground rules to keep flight attendant from flipping out

Editor's note: Robert Reid is the U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet and host of the 76-Second Travel Show.

New York (CNN) -- We all fantasize of one day quitting our jobs in a storm of profanities, middle fingers and toppled computers.

Rarely does it happen, though, so when flight attendant Steven Slater lived the dream on JetBlue Flight 1052 at JFK on Monday -- yelling "it's been great!," grabbing a beer and jumping out the emergency slide into airline history -- I sort of had to sit back and applaud.

It resonated in the industry, too. "It was shocking," said Sara Keagle, a flight attendant of 18 years who blogs at Flying Pinto and calls the high-strung northeast the trickiest region for smooth passenger-attendant relations. "He basically lived out a fantasy I didn't know I had."

Tension between airline companies, airline staff and air passengers seems to dip to new lows every year. Passengers whine about an increase of fees on such things as checked baggage, meals and use of blankets (the industry makes nearly $8 billion a year in such fees, says the U.S. Department of Transportation).

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They also have to surrender harmless toothpaste and disclose sock styles at airport security checks. They get cranky.

And flight attendants? They endure long hours (on average about 80 flying hours monthly, Keagle says) and low pay (starting at $14 per hour and topping at about $40). Some can join unions, but at JetBlue, Slater wasn't in a union. All too often, they deal with self-righteous passengers who treat them as assistants, or -- in the case of Slater -- allegedly become abusive.

But considering that there are about 50,000 commercial flights daily, our record of getting along peacefully is pretty good. That more flight attendants don't flip out at obnoxious passenger behavior is what's really surprising here. (The worst such behavior I've seen is a drunk trio refusing to stop singing on a flight from Zurich, Switzerland, to Moscow, Russia; I nearly made it a quartet.) Perhaps more scenarios ought to end like this recent pillow fight on Lufthansa?

Still, maybe Slater had a point, if a tad overstated.

Perhaps it's time to go over some ground rules. Here are some tips to keep your flight attendant from going Slater on you.

Be nice. The folks in the terminal taking your ticket -- or repelling your delusional pleas for free upgrades -- are frequently those serving you on the flight. So be nice right away. "Hey, good ticket skills" is one charmer.

Make them laugh. Before crouching to enter the bathroom, good-naturedly ask "will I get a hernia in there?" If they get it, they'll love you; if not, they're sort of lame.

Don't talk business. Flight attendants don't need to be reminded their airline is struggling -- and face it, nearly all of them are -- so don't throw out the ol' "no wonder your airline is on the ropes" if they're out of cranberry juice. Certainly won't get you a bonus cookie.

Take one for the team. When you get the teacher-scolds-child reminders to put your iPod away, or tuck that fanny pack deeper under the seat in front of you, just do it with a smile or self-deprecating remark like "gosh, I'm bad at geometry." Keagle said attendants actually hate having to remind passengers about this. "I dread that part of the job. Unless you've lived under a rock, you know about that already."

Ask about them. "How far have you flown today?" or "What's the dumbest passenger question you've heard?" can show you're interested in them as actual people.

Don't dump trash in the seat pouch. Treat the airline like a friend's home -- don't trash it. The pouch in front of you is not a place to put dirty diapers or your sandwich wrappers. "I put my hand in puke one time," Keagle said. "Not fun at all."

Don't ogle. Some folks, OK mostly guys, treat the aisle as a walkway of delights and visually grope attendants as they saunter down it. That's rude.

Don't defy attendants. C'mon. If an attendant says "snooze the toilet break," snooze it. If you're not yet at the gate, don't get up to sneak a first grab at the overhead storage. The bag will be there. You deserve no bonus privileges above your fellow passengers.

To the passenger who reportedly ignited Slater's meltdown? After cursing and supposedly pulling a bag out that slammed into Slater, like in that Ben Stiller scene in "Meet the Parents?" Maybe you ought to laminate this list.

Or go by car.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Reid.