Life at 35,000 feet

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First aired on DNTO (11/8/12)

What kind of airplane passenger are you? Do you patiently wait your turn to board or do you push people out of the way? Do you talk the ear off your seatmate or do you clam up? Do you say "please" and "thank you" to the flight attendants or do you order them around? From the nicest people to the meanest, flight attendant Heather Poole has seen them all. Poole has been flying high with major U.S. airlines for 15 years. The popular travel writer turned her flight attendant experiences into a new book, Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet.

As a flight attendant, Poole has learned to expect the unexpected. "We see lots of unusual behaviour which, interestingly enough, becomes normal behaviour," she told DNTO host Sook-Yin Lee. "What's crazy to you is not crazy to me. It's just part of my job." It's why her flight attendant training was so rigorous and intense. Flight attendants aren't waitresses in the sky. They are trained to look out for your safety and well-being, whether it means dealing with a cranky passenger or an emergency landing. But many passengers don't realize that.

The most common occurrence with passengers, Poole says, is seeing them get very impatient and territorial. When it's time to board they rush the line, and they claim their seats and storage units without any consideration for other passengers. Poole doesn't understand this at all. Not only are you given "30 minutes to board," once you're on the plane, you're stuck there until you land at your final destination. When you're rushing to board, she asks, "where are you going?" Boarding a plane is nothing more than enacting "hurry up and wait" and Poole thinks it's not only pointless, it can compromise the safety of passengers in need of assistance.

Another common occurrence is claiming storage bins as "your own." The bins are there for all passengers to use, Poole says. If the one above you is full, move down the plane. But several passengers Poole has interacted with don't adhere to this. She once had a passenger who put his coat in his overhead bin and refused to let anyone else put their bags in it. Another frequent flyer refused to put his bags in a bin above the seat three seats down. "It's like real estate," Poole said. "The tighter it gets the more we want." But Poole is quick to point out it isn't only passengers who get territorial and impatient. The crew does too. "My own co-workers get very territorial about the space that we have."

Poole has a theory that explains why people become their worst selves when flying. "You're never going to see that person again, so I can scream at them and not have to worry about it later," she said. "You're not going to be judged by family, co-workers or friends. You're just around strangers."

Another common occurrence on long flights is for passengers to get overly intimate -- and not in the mile-high-club kind of way. Poole has learned the most personal details of some passengers' marriages and children. They use the flight attendant as a surrogate best friend and therapist during their flight. "I might not know her name but I know her husband is cheating on her and her mother-in-law wants to get custody of their children."

Despite the highs and lows of her job, Poole loves it. And she finds airplane culture fascinating. So many different people fly and they all react to the experience of spending several hours inside a confined space as it flies through the air at hundreds of miles an hour. "I feel like the airplane is a microcosm of the world," she said. "If you really want to see what's going on, just sit down and look around and watch."

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