JetBlue attendant: Why judge may not be amused by Steve Slater

JetBlue attendant Steve Slater is being called a working-class hero for allegedly berating an abusive passenger and then jumping down the exit chute. But judges take any crimes related to air travel very seriously.

By , Staff Writer

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    This screen grab taken from MySpace shows Steven Slater. Slater, a JetBlue attendant, looked pleased and relieved after cursing out a passenger on an airplane public-address system, grabbing some beer from the galley and using an emergency slide to hop off, Tuesday.
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So, what happens next to Steve Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who seems to have had an onboard meltdown Monday before sliding out of the plane via its emergency chute at John F. Kennedy International Airport?

He has already been charged with reckless endangerment and criminal mischief. But will prosecutors follow through with a trial of someone who is fast becoming an Internet folk hero for essentially saying, “I’m mad as hell, I’m not going to take this anymore,” to quote Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network.”

Former federal prosecutor Robert Mintz says Mr. Slater, who did not post $2,500 in bail and remained in Jail Tuesday, will likely face a judge not quite as sympathetic as the public.

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IN PICTURES: The wide world of air travel

“In my experience anything to do with air travel is taken very seriously because it invariably involves the life and safety of hundreds of passengers,” says Mr. Mintz, now a criminal defense lawyer at McCarter & English in Newark, N.J. “I have seen all these regulations and law very strictly enforced.”

Some legal specialists are hard-pressed to think of a defense.

“I’d like to know exactly what happened,” says Hanan Kolko, a labor lawyer and a member of the New York law firm Meyer, Suozzi, English, & Klein. “Just because I can’t think of anything does not mean it’s not out there.”

According to media reports, Slater was on a Jet Blue flight from Pittsburgh that had landed at JFK in Queens, N.Y., when a passenger got up to retrieve her luggage in the overhead compartment before the flight was at the gate. Slater repeatedly told the passenger to get back in her seat, she cursed him and he is alleged to have been struck in the head with some luggage.

He then went back to the front of the plane and in an obscene fashion told the passengers what he was thinking. Then, reports say, Slater pulled some beers out of the galley, deployed the emergency slide, and ultimately headed home.

Mr. Kolko doubts Slater, a flight attendant since 1990, will return to the airline business. However, some people think JetBlue or law enforcement officials ought to reconsider taking action against him.

“I would be hard-pressed to fire that kid,” says Denny Kelly, an aviation investigator in Dallas with Kelly James and Associates. “I would make him apologize to the public in general."

He says flight attendants have to tolerate lots of “stuff,” such as passengers becoming inebriated and nasty, irritable over delayed flights and missed connections, and often outright hostile and violent.

“When adults get to the airport, they leave their adult IDs behind and become children again,” says Mr. Kelly. “I also think a lot of people are afraid of flying so when they get to the airport, it enters their subconscious and they act like a jerk.”

Some mental health professionals believe a lot of people can relate to Slater’s actions, especially in this economy in which workplace and employment related stresses are running high.

“He brought a movie climax to real life by doing what the rest of us only fantasize about doing,” writes Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, in an e-mail.

New York psychotherapist Pamela Garber agrees. “He said, ‘Ok, I’ve had it, this is the last straw.’” In fact, she wonders why it does not happen more often.

Well, in the movies it happens from time to time. Who can forget Mr. Beale, the newscaster in Network.

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad, it’s a depression,” said Beale, played by Peter Finch. “I want all of you to get up, to get out of your chairs, I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

In Nine to Five, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda imprison Dabny Coleman, the chauvinistic, bigoted president of their company. In true Hollywood fashion, the three women all end up unscathed but empowered.

Could the same happen to Slater?

“Despite the celebrity he is now enjoying he will not easily find a new job unless his new job is being a celebrity,” says Dr. Hilfer.

“He certainly got his fifteen minutes of fame,” agrees Mintz.

IN PICTURES: The wide world of air travel

[Editor's note: The original version of this article misspelled Steve Slater's name.]

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