illustration of hand carry tray in plane window
Tim Lahan

It’s time to be grateful.

For the courtesy, even when (especially when) it is feigned or forced. For the big, brassy hellos as we all file onto the plane, and the smaller, lines-around-the-eyes goodbyes as we all file off again, having gotten to know one another a little better. For the canned speeches over the in-flight PA—always somehow invested with a fillip of real feeling—and the limp theater of the safety demonstration, the long-suffering puff into the tiny tube on the life jacket. For the metallic backstage atmosphere of the galley, where they sit with thrillingly off-duty faces next to plastic glasses of trembling cold water. In the air, they are charming threshold guardians; on the ground, they rush past us in a chatty flock while we’re stuck in the customs line. It’s time to be grateful for flight attendants.

I recently flew from Boston to London. The airport, the plane, and the flight attendants themselves were sorely afflicted with the subvirus of emptiness. The rituals were observed—the drinks trolley was trundled up and down the aisle; sad snacks were handed out—but the interactions were mask-muffled and the faces unreadable. None of those little flourishes or raised eyebrows. None of those soothing noises. We were strangers to each other. A great body of flight-attendant knowledge, of shrewdness and sympathy, saucy percipience, long acquaintance with every sort of passenger—Foot-in-Aisle Man, Sir Talks-a-Lot, Princess Wi-Fi—seemed to have been rendered inert.

It made me think. About the exquisite management of expectations that goes on up there, about everything that flight attendants do to convince you—in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that you are having a faintly classy experience. They minister, they mollify, they bring blankets, they do de-escalatory jiu-jitsu with alcoholics and exploding parents, and then they walk around with a plastic bag, collecting trash.

Have I been a good passenger, over the years? Not too needy? Thankful when appropriate? There was the flight where I burst into tears, with biological promptness, every 20 minutes. The flight where I wore a jacket that stank so vengefully of cat urine that the man next to me asked to change seats. The flight where, still dazed from a sleepless night in San Francisco, I looked out into the golden loft-space above the clouds and saw my whole life shining like the sun. At all times I was managed discreetly, treated respectfully; I hope I was respectful in return.

Ever seen a flight attendant burst into tears? Or encountered one who smelled of cat? It doesn’t happen. In a shadowy time, in a hooded time, give me the breastplate of professional cheeriness. Give me that shiny casing of industrialized hospitality and presentability—and if it’s only an inch deep, all the more heroic.

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