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Dane Steele Green Headshot

The Control of an In-Flight Purser

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Vacations. They are my stock and my trade. Because of that, I know a few things about them and what it takes to make a really good one. But funny thing about vacations: Man-o-man, are they fragile. One bad thing goes wrong and blam! The whole thing, however unjustly, is blighted. That's why I go out of my way to make sure that every trip I plan, everybody, down to the last soul, has a standout experience. And not just at the destination, but also going to and from it. As far as I'm concerned, a Steele vacation starts the minute you get on your flight -- that's part of the experience, too.

So, last April, when I spent 9 hours on a United flight from Sao Paulo to Newark-Liberty with a soggy crotch thanks to one of the most vain flight attendants I've ever encountered, you can imagine that things went a little downhill. In the enclosed space that is a plane, the purser, or lead flight attendant, has complete control over its crew and passengers. By their authority, they have the power to either make sure the flight crew is in good spirits, friendly and attentive to their service offerings.

It is very similar to a coach of a football team or the project manager on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice." If the crew screws up, we are sure to blame the lead. In my many years of flying, I have seen this phenomenon occur. If the purser is happy and excited to be there, usually the crew is right on par. If the purser is shrewish or obnoxious, the crew is awful and your meal shows up half-frozen. Furthermore, if the purser follows their in-flight guidebook to the letter, it could make for a stiff flight for all involved.

I came across a perfect example on a recent flight on United Airlines. I'll call him "Ted." Like a lot of bad situations, this one, and Ted himself, began spiraling out of control from the start and to the point you begin to wonder where the end is. Upon boarding the flight in Sao Paulo, I was shrugged off by Ted. I know the industry: Everyone has bad days, and that some flight attendants can end up working 24 hours solid, so, with a roll of my eyes, I found my seat. A brusque flight attendant does not a bad flight make.

That must of have been a clarion call.

Because Ted began throwing menus at guests in the BusinessFirst cabin during boarding. As Ted handed out the menus, if a passenger did not say thank you, he would say "you're welcome" in that instantly recognizable saccharine tone that reeks of condescension. It was almost like that scene in "Terminator: Salvation" where Skynet is herding humans into an incinerator: Ted was busy moving boarding passengers out of the way so he can show that he was in charge. His other fellow colleagues noticed his behavior and were honestly embarrassed.

As the other flight attendants worked extremely hard in making up for his behavior, I noticed the very sweet "Mia." I mentioned to Mia that she should inform Ted to calm his harsh attitude before other guests get annoyed. She agreed, along with other FAs, that his behavior was unacceptable and that this was "his personality" (not an excuse). As passengers were still boarding and after another FA brought me a ginger ale, Ted was running around the cabin, yelling "salad dressing?!" "Main?!" He stood in the center of the aisle and would not move for boarding passengers. I asked Ted if he would mind moving out of the way for the passengers to pass. Of course, he did not budge.

Think of a crowd like water. It will flow on regardless around obstacles. Thusly, the boarding passengers were forced to pass in front of my seat to circumvent Ted. They could not, however, circumvent my ginger ale.

A passenger knocked it into my lap, which caused me to fly home all the way to Newark wet and uncomfortable. I was enraged. I got extremely angry with Power-Trip Ted, but rather than apologize, he upped the ante by starting a screaming match with me and threatening to throw me off of the flight. The other flight attendants scrambled to provide napkins to me and to calm the situation. It was now, officially, a "bad flight." Ted struck me as one of those bosses that mistake adversarial management with good business practices.

But not all of us were ignored. While I marinated in soda for the next nine hours, Ted was busy flirting with the gentleman seated across the aisle from me. Note I am saying "flirting." I do not mean the typical, "Hello, how can I help you" attentiveness, but a to-the-hilt kindness included multiple touches on the arm. If we were at a club it would qualify as throwing yourself at someone, if we were in a court it would qualify as harassment.

I, and the rest the plane, may as well have not been there: Ted, in full "look how amazing I am while I ignore you" mode with regards to me and the rest of the passengers, lavished his attention to the man seated next to me. This fellow looked at me with complete confusion wondering why I was treated so badly and he was treated like a prince. Not content with power-tripping, Ted threw in an ego-trip as well, being thrilled with hearing his own voice over the PA system, overextending his thoughts and jurisdiction via the microphone. The entire flight was under Ted's control, he knew it, and it was almost a dictatorship. No fun, no class, and mixed with a bit of fear to stand up, or even to sit in your seat.

I'll be the first person to say that it is not my business to state how people do their jobs. But I do expect people to do their jobs to the best of their ability. If I did a turn as Ted, I'd be ripped a new one by my clients, I would lose my business, my reputation would be trashed -- and I would deserve every last drop of vitriol thrown at me. I don't tempt fate. Even if it is like chewing glass, I go out of my way to make sure a traveler gets treated like royalty. When I see, and personally experience, somebody else in the same business fail so epically, it is mind-boggling.

Maybe Ted was having a bad day. Maybe he had been awake for hours upon hours on end. Even so, maybe, just maybe, he's not in the right business for his talents.

After a call and multiple e-mails into United's top management, I received an e-mail from the VP of Customer Experience simply stating: "Dear Dane, We certainly do apologize and our in-flight team will do an investigation. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to address the situation and improve. Best regards."