In-Flight Madness

Every once in a while, society is confronted by a trend so menacing, so degrading, so fundamentally idiotic that the people must rise as one and see that it is stopped dead in its tracks. Case in point: the frightening evolution of the comedic airline attendant.

As reported by Forbes and USA Today, and as confirmed by this frequent flier to 14 cities in 18 days recently, the friendly skies are slowly being taken over by airline hosts who mistakenly view themselves as the spiritual heirs of Milton Berle, Gilda Radner and Robin Williams. For years Southwest Airlines has been encouraging its employees to yuck it up with passengers, and the program has been so successful that Delta’s start-up Song is actually holding auditions for prospective employees to see how amusing they can be in an airborne setting. Forbes reports this pearl of in-flight humor delivered by the celestial yuckmeisters: “If New York’s JFK airport isn’t your final destination, well then … tough cookies.”

Ho. Ho. Ho.

It is generally agreed that flying is the worst experience known to man. But even bad things can get worse. To my mind, flying while being “entertained” by amateur comedians sounds like something so cruel and unusual the Supreme Court should look into it. As a person who makes a living by being vaguely amusing, and who knows that there are probably no more than 500 genuinely funny people in this entire society, I’d rather be in a plane flown by amateur pilots than be in a plane staffed by amateur comedians. In fact, I’d rather be in a plane flown by blind cows. An airplane is a place to work, to sleep or to watch the latest God-awful Minnie Driver movie. It is not a forum for talentless ding-dongs to advance their micro-careers. It is not open-mike night-or at least it didn’t used to be.

I first noticed this trend on a flight to Boston about seven years ago, when the cut-up flight attendant was so thoroughly annoying that the co-pilot eventually opened the cockpit and told him to shut up. It wasn’t merely that the self-satisfied nitwit wasn’t funny, which goes without saying. It wasn’t even the fact that he was invading the aural space that belongs to passengers who like to be alone with their own thoughts, because unlike aging class clowns, they actually have brains.

No, the most galling thing about this yammering jackass was the sense that he had somehow been encouraged to “perform” by his employers. What I find so infuriating about the Southwest Airlines and Delta in-flight comedy routines is the sense that once again the wizards in the marketing division are trying to build brand loyalty by encouraging employees to evince emotions they do not feel via talents they do not possess. At a time when the American public wants more and more straight talk from those in the service industry, the geniuses behind these stunts are encouraging employees to be less authentic, less honest, less genuine.

Ignore for a moment how maddening it is to be an intelligent traveler marooned in an aircraft for several hours with a blabbering idiot. What really makes you angry is the inability to penetrate that maddening facade that hotel staff, rental car personnel and airline employees all seem to have adopted in the past few years. You feel as if there is a layer of gauze between you and the person you are talking to, that you cannot quite interact with the individual; that he may in fact be nothing more than a hologram. Next thing you know we’ll be dealing with madcap pension fund managers, wacky accountants, slapstick limo drivers. All about as funny as a CFO doing standup at annual board and shareholder meetings.

The best flights I have ever had were on planes staffed by courteous, friendly people. The worst flights I have ever had were on planes staffed by wise alecks. Maybe Southwest and Song think that in-flight humor is a way to defuse the tension we all feel in the wake of 9/11. If so, they are wrong. One of these days we’re going to read about a flight attendant beaten to a pulp after delivering the line: “This will be a non-smoking flight. However, if you still wish to smoke, you are welcome to step out to our lounge on the wing, where if you can light ’em up you can smoke ’em.”

And you thought terrorists were the scariest thing about travel.

Joe Queenan is the author of several best-sellers, including, most recently, True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sportsfans (Henry Holt, April 2003).

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Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.

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