The eyes of two hundred passengers at Gate 27 stare at a monitor that now reads, “Flight 873 cancelled - Bad weather.” They look at the red letters of death and then at me behind the boarding gate counter. Something changes in the humanity of the crowd as they advance toward the counter, shuffling in one by one. It's a crowd now thirsting for airline employee blood.
A minute before, my esteemed coworker Kristin went for a bathroom break, leaving me here flying solo.
Before the crowd reaches the thin defensive line of my plexiglass counter, I launch a preemptive strike. I reach for the microphone and turn up the volume to max.
[PA] “I know you are all…unhappy that your flight is cancelled,” I say, “But when you come up to the counter, remember I am not the one who did it. And thank you for flying Augusta, without you there are no friendly skies.”
The first person reaches the counter, rests their elbow on it as if preparing for a long stay, and utters, “This is unbelievable.”
I reply, “It's as unbelievable to me as it is to you.”
Another approaches holding up a mileage card. “I am a Platinum Club member!” I look and see thirty other people behind him holding Platinum cards that they received in the mail. Soon, I’m surrounded with a boiling mob of people demanding ticket rebookings on flights that are mostly not available or don’t exist.
This is probably a good time to quit I say to myself, while maintaining a polite smile for the angry horde.
I can’t quit. I have the second-highest ranking in our airline’s cabin crew system behind Kristin my missing coworker. Just one notch to making it into the history books of Augusta Airlines as Fleet Lead Flight Attendant.
I’m confident I can handle this crowd Kristin left me alone with. Most likely she received advance warning of the cancellaton from the pilot. Rivalries are a game. And in a game I never, ever, accept a loss.
The next morning, the departure hall holds the same passengers, now waiting to board the flight after a 13-hour delay. Many have paid for overnight hotel stays in Boston.
[PA] “Passengers in rows 1 to 29 may begin boarding,” I say, ”We will try to get off the ground early, as the flight may be facing a *stiff* headwind today, so please board in as efficient a manner as possible.”
The secret word for crews across the airline today is “stiff”. The challenge is to use the secret word with a straight face and steady voice over the PA as many times as possible, despite the entire crew knowing its lewd meaning. The winner on our flight gets free drinks tonight at the hotel.
Kristin taps her finger on the counter. An acknowledgement of myself scoring the first point.
As we check in passengers, I smile and greet each customer, looking deep into their eyes. Most mistakenly believe we are showing a gesture of friendliness, but in fact, we are checking their eyes for signs of intoxication. And then taking a glance down at their ticket to scan their personal belongings for problems.
Once the gate is closed, we are inside with the 220 passengers. Many of them still standing in the aisle. At the front of the plane, a parent with a stroller asks, “Could you help me lift this?”
“The business class flight attendant can assist you,” I point toward Kristin, who's turned away helping someone else, and keep pointing my finger as I walk past toward economy class.
Our enmity sprang into existence from nowhere on a flight three years ago when Kristin, the senior flight attendant, didn't believe me when I said I had a case of gastroenteritis, and worked me mercilessly. I most likely spread the nasty stomach virus throughout the economy class cabin in between breaks to take Imodium tablets. This bad day was, incidentally, three weeks after we had a misguided fling during a stopover in Anchorage, not that that was connected in any way.
I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around. A large man stands and very insistently gets close to my face.
“I would like to change my seat.” He shows a ticket for 25B. A middle seat. “Those seats are empty.” He points indignantly toward the emergency exit row.
“Augusta’s policy is customers need to pay a surcharge for premium seats,” I say. “Sir, I will need to ask you to sit down.” I point to the 18 inches of space between 2 passengers overflowing the armrests.
“But, your colleague said you are the one responsible for seat reassignments.” He points toward someone in the front of the plane.
Without turning, I know who he is pointing toward.
Once everyone is seated, us crew members convene in the front.
Kristin, who is the lead flight attendant on the flight, goes through the standard protocol with the full cabin crew. After she's done she looks at me and says, “Mike, your turn for crotch watch.”
I walk front to back along both aisles examining everyone’s private parts. I toss out a “you need to fasten your seatbelt” occasionally and move on quickly before the passenger has a chance to counter with any excuse. After checking all 220 passengers, I return to my jump seat. I see Kristin is safely buckled up and contained for take-off.
Once we have reached cruising altitude, she takes the intercom close to her mouth, thumbing the side, and covering it with whatever viruses she might be carrying.
[PA] “The captain has turned off the fasten seatbelt sign, and you may now move around the cabin freely.”
I’m waiting for the secret word.
[PA] “We may encounter some heavy turbulence today, and would like to offer a free drink to everyone in economy class, if you are in need of a stiff drink please ask your flight attendant”
I cover economy class while Kristin has used her priority to cover first and business. Her first bold move of the day. And damn. Secret word is now 1-1.
Furtive glances from economy class passengers are directed my way. I pull out the drinks cart and begin serving.
After quenching the alcoholic thirst of half of economy class, I quietly slide back toward the crew galley. From around the corner, I hear Kristin say, “He avoids work every chance he gets.” As I hear the other cabin crew agreeing with Kristin, my face starts to twitch uncontrollably. I get it under control and head back toward the front of the cabin before hearing what is said next.
At a leisurely pace, I stroll through the business class aisles slowly looking left and right, throwing out smiles and looking open to requests. Microaggressions in the airline industry needs to be subtle and deftly executed.
A passenger raises his hand and asks, “Excuse me, where are we flying over right now?”
“I’ll get your cabin attendant to answer that for you.”
I return to the galley.
“Kristin, you have a request from 14A.”
“What is it?”
“He didn’t say.”
A minute later, I watch Kristin bending over 14B to reach the passenger in 14A and turn on his in-flight map, and explain to him that Syracuse is a city in New York, and that’s a state, not the city.
While Kristin is distracted, I go back to cattle class and let a group of teens making a TikTok video know that recording it in first class might be better than dope on social media.
I show them to the door and pick up the intercom mic.
[PA] “A reminder to passengers that smoking is prohibited on the entire aircraft including first and business class. There are stiff penalties for smoking in the lavatory”
How did I fall into this job? A decade ago, after spending three years helping get my best friend’s food truck off the ground in Waikiki, I found myself still living in my parent’s house in Honolulu. Claire, who is my age and a friend of the family, was working for United and said airlines are always looking for male flight attendants.
Working as a FA would allow me to spend four or five nights a week at 4 and 5-star hotels around the country, out of the trap of my parent's place in West Honolulu.
When I wavered on whether a job as a flight attendant would make it harder to find a partner someday and get settled down, Claire told me, “Look toward the future, after you get married, think of all the little pointless arguments that simply won’t happen because you won’t be at home.”
I thought about how things were living with my parents, and filled out an application for Augusta Airlines the next day.
After we pick up the half-eaten lunch service trays, the cabin crew can now focus on eating our own meal. I’ve been avoiding coffee all morning, after lunch is usually the time I can grab an hour or two of needed sleep. My eyes grow heavy, and then I see the in-flight entertainment monitors in economy class all suddenly flicker and go dark.
On the PA, I hear Kristin announce, “We are experiencing problems with the entertainment systems in economy class cabin, your nearest flight attendant will assist you with resetting them individually so you don’t get bored stiff on today’s 11-hour flight.”
Kristin is playing for keeps today.
After spending an hour helping passengers find the correct positions within their half watched films and TV episodes, I embark on a reconnaissance mission to the forward cabin. I notice a passenger in first class shifting back and forth in his seat, which gives me an idea.
[PA] “Augusta Airlines would like to thank you for flying with us today,” I say, “If you are flying in first class or business class, if you are having a stiff neck please do not hesitate to ask your flight attendant for an in-flight neck massage to relieve your stiff muscles.”
An hour later, Kristin gives me a cold stare, adjusts the lapels on her dark blue uniform, shuffles her feet like a matador in the ring, and then walks into an economy class toilet.
[PA] “Attention passengers, this is your pilot speaking. Due to an overflow in the economy class toilets, we are currently jettisoning 20,000 gallons of fuel over Lake Michigan and will be making an emergency landing in Milwaukee.” Captain Brook is speaking, “and the next flight attendant to use the word stiff over the PA will be thrown out of the airplane.”
The pilot reports Kristin. Kristin reports me. I report Kristin. We report the pilot. The co-pilot and three other pilots report us.
Management and the union decide the best way to resolve a 3-year feud, one that they have just found out about, is to remove the feuders from the airline. Tiffany Huegl is now the Fleet Lead Flight Attendant.
After a one week bender, I make a fresh start. Without being out of my town at odd times, I begin dating normal people again and making friends. Having worked in customer service in the air makes everything on land seem easy. To make ends meet before I figure out what I want to do next, I land a job in the Starbucks at HNL terminal.
As my morning shift is about to begin, I hear the opening notes to the song Dancing in the Moonlight. They play that one a lot in my store to boost the mood. A pilot told me there’s an interesting background to the song, but I never bothered to look it up.
The first customer of my shift walks in. I’m about to greet them when I’m interrupted by a familiar voice behind me. “Welcome to Starbucks, my name is Kristin, what can I get for you today?”