You think you’ve had horrible air travel experiences?

December 7, 2014

Note from Carol: The old days of airline travel. We kissed them goodbye long time ago.

So far, my air travel experiences haven’t been that bad, at least not compared to the story you’re about to read. It is one of the most horrible air travel experiences I’ve heard and it was experienced by my friend, the writer Ryder Ziebarth. She alluded to her experience in a comment here not too long ago, and I persuaded her to write it up as a guest post.

I’m on the Danube right now (or maybe on some ridiculously long flight delay, who knows?) so the page belongs to Ryder today. She’ll be watching for your comments and so will I–because I am certain you’ll have something to say about this, or your own bad experiences. Or, maybe you’ll spring to the airline’s defense, I don’t know.

So here is Head Winds, by Ryder Ziebarth.

Airline travel used to be special component of one’s vacation. You wore nice clothes, you used your best manners, carried a good purse, and in return, got a (free) pillow and blanket, a (free) choice of a hot meal served on a tray, and as many peanuts as you requested during your usually on-time flight. You felt safe, pampered and taken care of.

United Airlines had a reputation for providing top-drawer service, but as with most airlines, conditions changed in 1995 after a rather unseemly incident on a United flight from New York to Buenos Aires. During that game -changing trip, a steward noticed a passenger becoming increasingly inebriated and tried to cut him off having another round of drinks. The incensed man hopped on top of the cart, pulled down his grey flannels and took a big, fat dump. He then reportedly did a little victory dance in the mess, hopped to the floor tracking his feces through the aisle.

1194985177583872160plane_in_the_sky_mo_01.svg.hiAfter that, new airline rules were rewritten by the FCC to protect the crew and later, the failing airlines. No longer would they take any more poop from rude, demanding or feisty passengers; their patience had worn thin and strict guidelines were put into place to protect them from harassment. They would command respect (and all forms of credit cards) long after the passengers now dressed in pajamas no longer cared.

During the winter of 1997, my husband, six-year-old daughter and I, were returning home to New Jersey from a ski vacation in Colorado on United Airlines. A blizzard raged outside and we sat for hours at the gate waiting to board, then hours on the tarmac waiting to take off. The passengers and crew were hungry, angry and tired.
When the flight finally took off, it bumped and bucked all the way back to Newark Airport where another snowstorm was whirling.

The three of us are good flyers, and bumps don’t worry us, but the crew was particularly frazzled—this trip was the second leg of a very long 24 hours for some of them. No one felt like eating during the rocky ride, which was good, because the plane had run out of food. The seat belt sign remained on, which meant woe to the people needing the bathroom.
The crew policed the aisles for rule breakers and complainers.
“Refasten that belt!”
” No whining allowed!”

Note from Carol: When those little hats disappeared, so did good service. The hats kept their brains in. Look for airlines that still require the cap.

Note from Carol: When those little hats disappeared, so did good service. The hats kept their brains in. Look for airlines that still require the cap.

And that is when my daughter told me she “felt funny.” Going into child about to throw-up mode, I unbuckled her seat belt to race her to the bathroom. Just as we were standing up to move forward, down the aisle flew the wicked witch of the western skies wearing sensible pumps. With hair askew, necktie off center and a gravy stain on her navy blue lapel, she motioned for me to “sit down,” flapping her arms like goose.
“We need the bathroom, please, ” I said. ‘My daughter feels sick to her stomach.”
“I said SIT DOWN, ” she barked. ‘ NOW.”

I scrambled for seat and then a vomit bag, but the stewardess had scared the up-chuck out of Lizzie and thankfully nothing came out. While comforting my daughter, the captain announced from the loud speaker that we were finally ready to land. I gave Lizzie’s seat belt an extra tug, righted our seats and stowed our gear back under the seats.
“Seat backs up!” demanded our stewardess.
” Seat back up, now, ” she ordered, standing over me in particular.

I ignored her. My seat back was broken and I knew it—as upright as it would be– but she didn’t. I was still irritated at her discourteous behavior toward my child and me. She hesitated only for the briefest of moments before gathering a full head of angry steam, and leaning inches away from my face hissed:
“PUT it up.”
“It’s broken.” I said.
“You already defied me once,” she said, yanking at my seat back, trying to upright it manually.
“When I tell you do something, DO IT,” she said.
I leaned away from her as she clenched my armrest with knuckles whiter than snow.
” Defied you once? What is God’s name are you talking about? GET OUT of my face.”

This woman had truly lost all control of herself. I pushed her hand away.
“She TOUCHED me! Did anyone see that? You cannot touch me! It’s against the law. I am reporting this to the captain!” she yelled.
I was baffled and embarrassed. People around me were whispering, eyes down cast.
“Just everyone calm down, please,” my husband said, as she flew off on her broom to toward the flight deck.


Note from Carol: She needs her mouth washed out with some of this.

We landed an hour later and I was still shaking. Relieved to get off the plane, my shakes turned to shock as I saw two burly Newark cops waiting for me at the gate along with the Captain and the Tattletale.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said to my husband. He reached the police first and went ballistic; my daughter became hysterical, and I was on the verge of tears as we both crouched against the wall as I cradled her.

“What on earth were you thinking? Just look what you have done,” I said to the stewardess. “You have carried this way too far.”

Lizzie’s crying elevated from sobs to screams; people started to crowd around us, rubbernecking.
“Wait.” She said to the cops. “Tell her to apologize and then you can let her go.”
“WHAT? Me apologize?’ I said, astounded at her nerve.
“OK,” I said standing up to meet her eyes.
“I am sorry I ever boarded this plane. I am sorry you lost complete control of yourself, I am sorry I will NEVER fly with this airline again.”
“Good enough,” she said signaling to the cops to release me. I can only think that she knew she had taken the new rules too far and began to regret it herself.

The following week the airline contacted me by phone to further pursue the matter. They would either take me to court or I could pay a hefty four-figure fine. I retained a lawyer who suggested I accept the fine.

I had Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for months, my daughter developed a fear of flying, my husband had to write the check and eventually, United Airline landed with a bang in Bankruptcy court. But to this day, I wouldn’t be surprised (or unhappy) to learn that a pair of sensible navy pumps stuck out from under the aircraft after it hit the skids.

Ryder Ziebarth writes from a 250 year old farmhouse, is a freelance writer and an MFA candidate in Creative Non fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared on the Brevity blog, The New York Times, and Nantucket Magazine.



18 comments on “You think you’ve had horrible air travel experiences?
  1. I love the way you tell this horrible story, Ryder. I hear you trying to have some empathy for this flight attendant. And I can imagine she was a bit stressed. But if this is not a case of someone being too big for their britches, I have never heard one. You write so well and are so funny – but I hope the PTSD and your daughter’s fear of flying has resolved. That’s serious stuff to be dealt with.

  2. roz warren says:

    I took forward to the day when pot becomes legal and everyone on a plane (but the pilots) can be high in both senses of the word. If everybody could just be a little more mellow, the skies would be a lot more friendly.

    • hillsmom says:

      Fortunately, there is no smoking on flights anymore. There used to be smoking and non-smoking sections on flights…if I remember correctly.

      • You’re correct. And, oddly enough, the smoke itself refused to obey those signs and calmly filled up the entire plane with noxious fumes that gagged everyone, not just the people who were smoking. One rule I’m glad they made universal.

      • Ryder Ziebarth says:

        Oh my. I remember that HillsMom. So glad that is ONE thing done away with.

    • Ryder Ziebarth says:

      Wouldn’t that be nice, Roz? No fighting over seat back space, overhead space and the last bag of chips…

  3. Ryder: Wow. What a horror show. As usual, it seems if you give some people a tiny amount of power, they turn into instant Hitler, just add water. I’m sorry you had to pay that fee, but I guess the lawyer knew what s/he was doing.

    I will never say I had a “horrible flight” again from just a screaming baby or a lack of Coke Zero again. I’ve had Nirvanna rolled up in Elysium compared to your experience.

    • Ryder Ziebarth says:

      Ha! Gary! It was a bad experience turned into a funny story. Now, the crew and passengers seem on equal footing, all arguing for the last Coke Zero.

  4. Traumatic, to say the least.

  5. A fantastic, incredible story, from beginning to end. Absolutely insane, really, how far the attendant took things. Even more insane that you had to accept the fine. Truly, flyer beware in all ways when hitting the horrendously unfriendly skies.

    • Ryder Ziebarth says:

      The crew has a lot more power than you think they do. I never mess with them, and I am not a lover of authority–but I don’t challenge that group any more!

  6. OMG what a story! Why is flying so uncivilized and just getting worse? It’s one of the few industries that seems to be going backwards.

    • ryder ziebarth says:

      Finnacially backward, that is for sure. I can not believe we have to pay for an aisle seat on some flight now. Next they will install pay toilets.

  7. This is exactly why I drive everywhere I go. No flying for me!

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