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Originally published Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Unhappy days for flight attendants

Assuming that passengers and flights attendants will continue to have occasional moments of grumpiness, what can passengers do to avoid a meltdown like the one that JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater had?

The Washington Post and New York Times

Steven Slater's unusual method of quitting his job as a flight attendant for JetBlue Airways raises the question: Why have the skies become so unfriendly?

Could it be all the extra fees? Could it be because planes are so crowded these days? Or is it those long security lines?

Answer: All of the above, says Robert Reid, U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet.

"Passengers feel like they're paying more and getting a little less," he said.

"Flight attendants are the ones who hear about it the most. They're the ones passengers see. They represent the airline, and they bear the brunt of this tension. It's not that surprising that it leads to something like this," said Reid.

JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater reportedly yelled obscenities at passengers over the loudspeaker on a flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, then fled down the emergency chute after an argument with a passenger.

Initially, news accounts depicted Slater as a heroic Everyman protesting the indignities of contemporary air travel. Soon, though, the story became less clear-cut after some passengers were said to have told the authorities that Slater had been acting aggressively and strangely throughout the flight.

While not condoning Slater's behavior, Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, said that flight attendants have it rough these days. They're working longer hours for low pay. And because airlines are charging fees for checked baggage, passengers are carrying on more and heavier bags.

According to a survey the association released in March, more than 80 percent of flight attendants were injured over the past year dealing with carry-ons in the plane's overhead bins.

The most common injuries were strained and pulled muscles in the neck, arms and upper back. (Slater reportedly was struck in the head by either the passenger's bag or the overhead bin door when the passenger tried to grab her bag before the plane had come to a full stop.)

The association has called for uniform size requirements for carry-on bags, but a bill introduced in Congress last year regulating carry-ons hasn't gone far.

Airline staff cuts

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These days, a flight attendant's career, once celebrated as glamorous, has become a very tough proposition. Over the last decade, salaries and pensions have been cut while air travel has become increasingly irritating to all.

Fueling the unhappiness are airline staff cutbacks.

As more people flew (769.6 million boarded domestic carriers in 2009, up from 629 million in 2000), carriers cut costs by eliminating jobs. This June, domestic airlines employed 462,977 full-time workers, compared with 607,387 in June 2000, the U.S. Transportation Department reports.

So assuming that passengers and flights attendants will continue to have occasional moments of grumpiness, what can passengers do to avoid another Slater moment? Lonely Planet's Reid has some tips:

• Be friendly. Say hello to your flight attendant. Ask how he or she is doing.

• Don't trash the plane.

• Don't get mad if your flight attendant asks you to put your iPod away. Follow the rules.

"If you treat people with the respect you want to be treated with, even on an airline, you'll have a better flight," Reid said.

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