Attendant Power

Washington Times 7.10.01
Balint Vazsonyi

Air rage is in the news. Depending on who is talking, passengers have lost their tolerance - or flight attendants no longer have any patience. Everyone has a story to tell, and attention to the crisis is urged by journalists as well as the authorities.

Yes, air travel has lost all semblance of luxury - gone is the quiet elegance that was just as self-evident in the economy class of Pan American 100 (the flight I had taken so many times from New York to London), as at service counters where the formalities were completed. And, while it is tempting to take sides and, predictably, blame air lines for stuffing as many people in the increasingly uncomfortable seats as they can get away with, there are two sides to the story.

Alarm signals went up in my brain when clearly well-to-do people began to show up in special waiting lounges wearing garments that looked dirty even when clean; when passengers began to arrive holding beverage cups and looking like Christmas trees - bags hanging from every side. "Which is the chicken and which is the egg?" I hear you ask.

True, air lines lose bags, or make you wait for them, and they are none too quick to serve you anything - if indeed they intend to serve you anything.

But there is a considerably more sinister aspect to the entire matter.

Once upon a time, perhaps in a previous life, a fundamental difference could be observed between American and European air line personnel, especially - though not exclusively - on the Eastern side of Europe. Since European carriers, typically, represent the state and thus the state authority, their supervisory role over passengers has always been just beneath the veneer of polite rigor.

Not so Americans who, invariably, represented private businesses, competing fiercely for passenger dollars. Fierce competition is incompatible with fierce behavior toward the customer. Indeed, competition guarantees the customer is always right.

(Please note: the preceding maxim is not confined to the air line industry.)

In that by-gone world, the people who attended passengers during the flight were known as stewardesses. The occasional male employee was called a steward; larger aircraft would sport a purser and an in-flight service manager - male or female.

Something changed when the term "flight attendant" replaced the previous titles. Few of us notice, but a great deal changes when labels are altered. People who, like myself, grew up under evil regimes, learn early to pay attention to changing labels.

For example, we no longer have personnel departments, only "human resources." We do not speak of business and industry, but of "the private sector." Illegal aliens have been replaced by "undocumented immigrants." Every one of these changes was prompted by a political agenda - one that has always considered America the arch enemy.

Consequently, today's flight attendants are drastically different from yesterday's stewardesses. "And about time," the National Organization for Women would most certainly declare. And that, possibly, provides the key.

It used to be exciting and exhilarating for young women to apply for a job in the skies. There were strenuous requirements, and tough tests to pass. Once chosen, the act of service was executed with excellence and pride.

Service no longer is an honorable trade. Apparently, it does not mesh with self-esteem.

I do not know how today's flight attendants are chosen and trained, but the quality most frequently observed in our time is that the cabin is in the hands of a variety of previously-oppressed persons. These previously-oppressed persons have been given power over previously-valued customers, now simply constituting a herd to control.

To be honest, I have a great deal of trouble with the previously-oppressed of America - no, not the ones who truly were, but those who are constantly goaded to see themselves as such. They are the new privileged class. Offend them, and you lose your job or go to jail. America has never known anything like it.

The Founding Fathers have created a wonderful place where, sooner or later, everyone could transcend social barriers. Yes, there was a kind of privileged class. Yes, there was old money. But everyone could work toward becoming wealthy and, sooner or later, new money would become old money. Immigrants could arrive in America with four years of elementary school as the combined educational history of an entire family, and send the next generation to college. If there was a privileged class, it was open to everyone. There was always a path across, a way up, a course to pursue your particular brand of happiness. The land of unlimited opportunity was not a myth; one could become literally anything.

But now, for many, there is no way on heaven and Earth to become previously- oppressed.

Take me. My generation in Hungary has experienced more oppression than the current membership of the National Organization for Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People combined. I guarantee it. Yet, being male and of European extraction, there is no way that my ilk could become anything but the reviled, condemned representative of the oppressor.

Something has gone desperately wrong in America. Air rage, road rage, assorted other rages are merely symptoms. The cause perhaps is that we have switched from evaluating how well a person is doing to classifying what sex, skin tone, or personal habits someone happens to represent.

When that classification becomes the essence of a person's being, we all are in trouble.