On a clear day, you can see forever as you fly over Lake Michigan. In the early morning, the sun glints off the water below and you can spot the massive ore tankers plowing their way south to the steel mills in Gary. On this day, my world narrowed to Seat 5B and the men and women around me on AA Flight 1718.
It was way too early for the pilot to exit the cabin, but there he was, talking quietly with the flight attendants. We locked eyes as he finished his conversation, and then he returned to the flight deck. Within seconds, we were told there was an emergency and that we would be going back to O’Hare. I’ve flown more than three million miles on thousands of flights over three decades. I’ve had my share of storms, lightning strikes, turbulence and even a blown engine on takeoff, but never an in-flight emergency forcing a plane to the ground.
For those who associate flight attendants with life’s vignettes – conflict with Alec Baldwin over a feigned game of Word with Friends on his mobile phone, or the fed-up Steven Slater of Jet Blue who activated the emergency-evacuation chute, grabbed a beer and then slid his way out of a job – I have a different story. Forget the image of the flight attendant hanging a jacket for you, helping organize the overhead storage or manhandling a drink cart down the aisle. These mental pictures trivialize the professionalism of the crew when our safety is at risk.
As our flight circled back over the lake for the return to Chicago, the pilot’s intercom crackled to life. He announced that our plane was leaking fuel. He asked us to remain calm and said it would be very important to follow every instruction that was to come.
Our flight attendants took over. They organized the passengers. They gave clear directions on how to exit the plane quickly and safely, and how to use the evacuation chutes if needed. They took us through every detail of the printed safety instructions in the seat pockets. And they showed us how we would brace for impact on landing.
Twenty minutes clicked by like hours. Wheels came down as The Loop passed to our left. Whispered reassurances calmed nervous seatmates and diverted negative thoughts. And then came the command, “Brace! Brace! Brace!” We landed with a bang and skidded to a halt. Emergency equipment surrounded our plane.
Then it was over.
Next time you board your plane and the flight attendants begin with the safety presentation, use a new lens as you watch them. Stop and listen. Tell them thanks for how they handle their work and service. And when the pilot says, “Our flight attendants are here for your safety,” believe it. We talk in our business about employees being aligned with a sense of purpose. From where I sat in 5B, that sense of purpose came through loud and clear.Back