Robb Dougherty, a Texas hairstylist, used to be a frequent flier on the Lubbock to San Antonio route. But he couldn't stand the nasty travelers he'd constantly encounter — people who felt entitled, who talked down to flight attendants, who raged when they weren't poured a full cup of soda or given an extra pillow.
"Once, it was such a thrilling, exciting adventure to fly," says Dougherty, 41, who now stays close to home in Corpus Christi. "It's become just a nasty experience. People swat you with their bags and don't apologize. No smiles. No nothing."
Dougherty is one of countless disillusioned travelers who vented their frustrations Tuesday as news spread of the spectacular meltdown of Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who cursed a passenger on the public-address system and then left his plane — and likely his career — behind with one dramatic escape down an emergency slide.
Many, but not all, were griping about nasty fellow passengers. To some, flight attendants were equally to blame for unfriendly skies.
Jim Erickson, for example, says he wouldn't have gotten on a plane a few years back if he'd known he'd be getting sick. But he got worse on board, requiring a number of trips to the lavatory, which meant squeezing by flight attendants with their carts.
One attendant accidentally splashed a bit of water on herself as she backed up a row to let him pass.
"She got very rude with me," says Erickson, a business analyst from Fort Worth, Texas. "I remember it left me feeling genuinely bad. Not only her words, but her continued attitude and looks at me for the remainder of the flight. Other flight attendants did nothing. Not even a quick apology while the meanie wasn't looking!"
Erickson, who was even a platinum-level flier, using the carrier (he prefers not to say which) twice a week, hastens to add that this is one bad experience, not an indictment of all flight attendants. But he bemoans the incivility — or mere indifference — that he sees on airplanes these days.
"Airline travel used to be a big event that prompted you to put on your suit and tie," says Erickson, 34. "Pilots stood at the doorway ... flight attendants were glamorous hosts and hostesses. Now, many American carriers have become cattle cars."
How did it come to this? Passengers and those in the travel industry cite a number of factors, among them post-9/11 security concerns, packed planes, and budget-tightening, leading to those dreaded fees.
"I think there's a feeling out there that you're getting taken when you fly on an airline," says Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer Guides and daughter of Arthur Frommer.
Plus, flying, she added, "is a high-stress experience. You're just a number when you fly. It's not like other parts of your life. Any feeling of control you have is gone."
That can lead to severe anxiety, says Katherine Muller, a clinical psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, who flies frequently and has suffered her own anxiety on flights at times.
"You're in this tight place with limited mobility," says Muller. "You're subject to all these rules, surrounded by people. You have no access to your regular 'stuff.' All this for a number of hours in a row."
Starting to feel claustrophobic? Muller's not finished. "On top of that, a lot of people have fears about flying. They may not talk about it, but they have it. Some people self-medicate, with pills and alcohol, so their behavior becomes less inhibited. And some people don't self-medicate — but maybe they should."
As for flight attendants, Muller points out that they're people too, subject to nerves, just like us.
For all that, friction between passengers and flight attendants is often over one, seemingly mundane thing: Carry-on luggage, as it apparently was in Slater's case.
"Historically, it's always been a flashpoint," says Christopher Elliott, a travel consumer advocate, noting that veteran travelers don't like to check their luggage because it might get lost, and others bring aboard overly large carry-ons.
"The (checked) luggage fees have added a new layer of conflict. You not only have to pay for it, but if it gets lost, the airline won't reimburse that luggage fee," says Elliott.
With all the depressing stories, it's worth noting that some passengers have heartening tales to report.
Mollie Hemingway, a mom of two from Washington, D.C., fondly recalls a flight attendant — traveling as a passenger, no less — who became her guardian angel on what seemed destined to be a flight from, well, a place with no angels.
Flying to Denver with her daughters, ages 1 and 2, Hemingway was stressed to the point of sobbing when her older child soiled her car seat minutes after takeoff, meaning Mom had to balance two kids on her lap.
Changing diapers in the tiny bathroom was a challenge. And the sleep-deprived girls were melting down, "turning into crazed beings that kicked the seats in front of them," Hemingway reports. The flight attendants were nowhere to be seen, until the angel appeared, offering to take the baby.
"I practically threw the baby at her," Hemingway says. "Later she exchanged seats so she could sit next to me and she helped me entertain the girls. I am so thankful for her help."
Stephen DeYoung hasn't felt heartened by an airplane experience in a long time. The former social worker from Tucson, Ariz. used to fly more frequently, but now does only rarely. The one experience he had earlier this month didn't help matters.
"I was crammed into a window seat, and I am 6-foot-4," he said. "I had to pay a baggage fee of $60. And the flight attendants' attitude seemed to be, 'We don't care how comfortable you are, we're just doing this as a job.'"
It's a far cry from the experience DeYoung remembers from back in the '70s.
"Flying used to have ... well, class," says DeYoung. "It used to be exciting. "Now it's just like riding the bus. You get where you need to go. That's what it comes down to."