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Kanika Datta: Why everyone loves Steven Slater

Steve Slater may not get his job back, but he's made a potent point with his dramatic exit act

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Till last week, Steve Slater was a little-known flight attendant on JetBlue, the American low-cost carrier. Then he publicly dissed a passenger and became an overnight and cult hero.

A website, www.freestevenslater.com, has been set up by fans with cartoons, mugs and T-shirts in his honour. Four people have composed ballads in his honour, including popular stand-up comedian Jimmy Fallon who performed a country-style Ballad of Steve Slater on one of his shows. He’s one of the most hotly discussed topics on Twitter, pages such as “Free Steve Slater” and “I support Steve Slater” have been set up, and a support group has been formed by a former pilot to raise money for his legal defence. A bemused Slater himself now has 140,000 fans on and describes his new-found popularity as “kinda neat”.

For anyone who missed the incident, the facts are broadly as follows. Several passengers had opened the overhead lockers to take out their hand luggage while the plane was still taxiing. Slater asked them to wait and all of them complied, save one. Slater repeated his request, the passenger continued to ignore him, so Slater went over to remonstrate with her. An argument followed in the course of which the passenger abused him. Some reports say she slammed the luggage bin on his head, but this fact is a bit hazy.

Whatever it was, the incident enraged Slater enough to abuse the passenger over the public address system, declare he’d “had it” after 20 years in the business, activate the emergency chute and slide down to the tarmac, pausing only to grab a beer from the drinks trolley. Then he walked to the car park and drove home (which makes you wonder about the infallibility of security at JFK, one of the world’s busiest airports). He was later arrested from his home for activating the chute without prior warning, a dangerous action that could have injured any ground crew below, but freed after paying a steep bail of $2,500.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Slater’s heroism will quickly be forgotten — the Internet, after all, is a truly democratic medium that allows everyone their 15 minutes of fame. Also, all said and done, the incident hasn’t really helped or empowered Slater in any way. He’s had to pay a hefty bail, is saddled with lawyer’s fees, is jobless and, at age 38, is unlikely to find work in the US’ shrinking airlines business since he’s displayed, from a management’s point of view, rank indiscipline. Indeed, Slater’s clearly ruing what was a rush of blood to the head since he’s now asking for his job back.

Even if it’s impossible to officially condone Slater’s actions, it’s easy to see why everyone loves him. Anyone in any service industry will understand the daily frustrations of putting up with wilfully unpleasant clients. And yes, yes, we know the spiel about the customer being king and there being nothing called a bad client and all of that. But what Slater did was what many dream of doing but rarely dare. In a sense, he spoke up for the little guy, the grunts in every business who tend to get noticed only in their absence but rarely enjoy a great deal of power except via their unions. As one balladeer on YouTube sang, “Steve Slater I wrote this song for you/ Because you said what we’ve been dying to say/ I’m sick of feeling powerless/ To effect any kind of meaningful change.”

Discounting the somewhat trite exaggeration of those lyrics, there is a message there for managements, if they have the imagination to see it, of a lingering sense of disempowerment among lower ranks in an organisation. One of the contradictions of post-modern corporate business has been that despite the growing sophistication of HR theory, it’s white-collar employees who have gained the most; those legions in the lower ranks of support functions and blue-collar workers mostly remain subject to the old-fashioned Kremlin-style management.

Part of the reason is that many of these functions are becoming irrelevant because of technology or changing market conditions. Low-cost airlines are a case in point. Cost rather than service has emerged as a competitive advantage. So, jobs like Slater’s have been downgraded in importance, both for the airline and the customer. Yet the airline can’t do without his ilk and nor can the customer. Now, the customer had the freedom to vent her dissatisfaction but Slater and people like him don’t have the option of expressing their grievances with customers.

Which is why it is striking that instead of sacking Slater outright, has merely suspended him pending an internal enquiry. It turns out that he may have been unduly provoked since the passenger concerned had abused Slater at the start of the flight as well (she cast aspersions on his mother, to provide an idea of the nature of the invective). The airline also said at no point during the incident was the safety of the passengers and crew compromised. A spokesperson did, however, dryly clarify that the incident was “highly unique”.

Too true. And Slater may not get his job back, but he’s made a potent point with his dramatic exit act. Helping himself to a beer on the way out was a great way to make it.

First Published: Thu, August 19 2010. 00:41 IST
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