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Heather Robinson

Heather Robinson

Posted: August 23, 2010 07:22 PM

What really happened on Jet Blue Flight #1052, scene of flight attendant Steve Slater's alleged meltdown?

OK, I know almost everyone is tired of this story. But as a passenger on the flight, I think it's highly probable that public opinion may have turned against Steven Slater undeservedly. And frankly, I think something fishy may be going on in the investigation into this man's alleged crimes. So as a journalist who happened to be a passenger on the flight, I feel compelled to raise a few questions.

For anyone who's been living an actual--as opposed to media-saturated--life over the past few weeks: Slater is the flight attendant who, following an alleged altercation with a passenger on a Jet Blue flight from Pittsburgh to JFK on August 9th, let loose a tirade over the plane's public address system, reportedly grabbed a couple beers, popped the plane's emergency chute, and slid to his escape. Police later arrested him at his home in Belle Harbor, Queens and charged him with reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, and trespassing.

Initial reports, based on Slater's account to police, were that a passenger had injured Slater by hitting him on the head with a bag or an overhead compartment door, and then the passenger had refused to apologize. It was believed that Slater, injured and fed up, made his dramatic speech and exit. In this narrative, he is an essentially harmless guy, sick of passenger abuse, standing up for himself in a creative act of perhaps slightly reckless, but ultimately victimless, protest.

As the story broke, Slater was hailed across the internet as a gutsy working class hero for his "take-this-job-and-shove-it" rant and escape. Then, in the days that followed, news stories started popping up filled with quotes from passengers claiming Mr. Slater had been the rude one. According to some of these fliers, Slater was rude from the beginning of the flight. News sources started reporting his story was not holding up and "no one has yet corroborated Slater's version of events."

These articles, at times containing statements by police sources emphasizing the thoroughness of their investigation ("Police sources say they have interviewed 90% of the passengers and found no one who can corroborate" Slater's story) have contributed to the mounting perception that Slater came onto the plane spoiling for a fight. His detractors in the media and the blogosphere have piled on, implying that either no altercation took place or that Slater is to blame for any altercation, that any sympathy for him is totally misguided, and/or his report of events was false.

As a passenger on the flight who also happens to be a journalist, both the initial adulation of Slater and the subsequent rush to disparage him surprise me. I see in both attitudes a rush to judgment without knowing all the facts. The latter case especially troubles me, because I think the man's reputation is potentially being seriously damaged before the facts have been thoroughly examined. Although I did not witness an altercation, what I observed as a passenger on the flight more closely matches the story Slater has given than the narrative that has emerged from subsequent media reports.

The day after the event, I appeared on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 to share my impressions as a journalist and passenger who happened to be on the flight. A couple days later, I appeared on FOX News's Geraldo at Large to do the same. And yet, despite being one of the more visible and easy-to-contact passengers, police have made no attempt, that I am aware of, to interview me.

If police are to be credited with a thorough investigation, why have they not interviewed one of the easiest-to-contact passengers on the flight? Granted, I have been interviewed by a Jet Blue investigator, who may possibly have passed information along to police. But that interview, too, raises questions that I will discuss.

My main question is: could the police's decision not to contact me stem from their perception that my observations would not fit neatly into the narrative they are constructing?

At this point, I'm more than a little tired of this story and I have no desire to sit around a police station and talk about it. This matter is also disturbing to me--and I have put off writing about it--because, since my days as a community news reporter in Manhattan, I have always had the utmost faith in the police. But since I think the police and some of the media may be missing something, and may be contributing to a biased atmosphere against this man, I am going to offer here my theory as to what actually happened on the flight. Between my own firsthand observations and those gleaned from other media sources, I think there is plenty of evidence to support this theory:

I believe Steven Slater was sober and behaving normally at the start of the flight, that he did have a confrontation with a passenger in which he was injured during the boarding process (although I did not witness this confrontation), and that this interaction, perhaps combined with other problems in his personal life, caused him a mini-meltdown.

I distinctly remember seeing Slater when I boarded the plane in Pittsburgh. I boarded early, the front of the plane was mostly empty, and he was standing with a couple other flight attendants. I remember his face; he looked pleasant. He did not seem rude, or strange in any way.

(Other passengers quoted have said Slater was rude from the start. I did not observe that).

My seat was in row 20, toward the middle/rear of the plane. The woman seated in the window, which was supposed to be my seat, asked if I would change seats with her and I agreed. For the first part of the flight, including, I think, some of the boarding process, I was watching TV on Jet Blue's in-flight system. (Once I start watching The Real Housewives of New York, I admit I'm in my own little world). The point is, the fact that I and most other passengers did not see or hear a confrontation does not mean it did not happen.

In fact, another passenger, a radio executive named Howard Deneroff, has reported he heard Slater and a passenger having an altercation over baggage. Like me, Deneroff boarded early. The timing of his boarding and mine is significant, because it speaks to the probability that Slater did not necessarily come to work in a state of drunkenness, or acting rudely--but may in fact have suffered a mini-meltdown at least partially as a result of treatment he received from a passenger or passengers.

So, accounts that state that no one heard any altercation are inaccurate, as Deneroff told the Daily News he heard an altercation between Slater and a woman over baggage. Accounts that state Mr. Slater was disorderly or rude or appeared drunk at the start of the flight are, in my observation, inaccurate because early in the boarding process, I saw him and he looked and acted fine. Deneroff shares my impression.

Again, timing is critical. When other passengers reported Mr. Slater appeared rude, was bleeding, etc., they may have accurately reported what they observed. The problem comes in when observers jump from these witnesses' observations to the (in my view) faulty supposition that no altercation ever took place, Slater is lying, etc. Because the altercation probably took place fairly early in the boarding process, most of these complaining passengers would not have seen or heard it. Because they did not board as early as Deneroff and I did, they would not have seen Mr. Slater before he was injured. But I did.

If Slater had been rude to me when I boarded, I would have noticed. If he had been bleeding when I boarded, I would have noticed.

So again, my theory is that the altercation in which he was injured took place after I boarded, and before most of the other passengers boarded.

Some of the media accounts, such as this one that appeared in The Wall Street Journal, actually support my theory. While on the surface, this article would seem to suggest an alternate narrative to Mr. Slater's account of events, in my view some of the passenger quotations actually support Slater's version of events:

Lauren Dominijanni, 25, who was flying to New York on business, said Mr. Slater was rude to her the moment she got on the plane.


She said someone had spilled coffee on her seat and when she asked for a sanitary wipe to clean it up, Mr. Slater "rolled his eyes at me and said, 'What?' in a real rude manner."

Ms. Dominijanni, of Pittsburgh, said that when she pointed to the spilled coffee, Mr. Slater barked, "No! Maybe when we get in the air! I need to take care of myself first, honey!" She said he was pointing to the gash on his head.

Examined with some thought, the fact that Slater stated he needed to "take care of [him]self" - and that he was emotional - suggests something happened to him on the plane. Presumably if he had injured himself that morning in some other circumstance, he would have "taken care of himself" before he ever got on the plane.

When the Jet Blue investigator contacted me, he asked what had happened. After hearing my version of events, he said something like, "Some of the other passengers have been saying he was rude to them from early in the flight. Did you experience anything like that?"

When someone tells you others have experienced an event in a certain way, and asks you to search your mind to see if you have had a similar experience to theirs, you naturally will search for commonalities. In a court of law, I believe this would be considered a leading question.

Who knows exactly what went down on Flight #1052? I was on the flight myself and I don't claim to. A wise man I knew used to tell me that in matters of politics, law, and all manner of dispute, "The truth is usually somewhere in between."

But I wrote this post because I believe it is important, when the state is charging someone with crimes, that the investigation is thorough, methodical, and balanced. And since the police have not approached me, this was the best way I could think to state clearly, for the record, what I saw and experienced on Flight #1052.