The case of the unsmiling flight attendant

ROBERT W. Cox, a flight attendant with American Airlines, was fired 10 years ago because of a curious form of incompetence. He failed to smile enough. Frowning severely, we may assume, United States District Judge Robert O. Belew Jr. has just upheld the dismissal on the grounds that ``a friendly facial expression'' is ``an integral part of the job'' of a flight attendant in these competitive times.

At the time when his earnestness was getting him into trouble, Mr. Cox promised American Airlines in writing that he would ``strive to smile more.'' But, alas, with smiles there are no IOUs. And probably ``strive'' was the wrong word -- it sounds just too, well, serious.

Still, ``strive'' is the right word. One would like to see the judge, or even an American Airlines vice-president, maintain, without a whole lot of striving, ``a friendly facial expression'' while demonstrating the oxygen mask, opening a pesky can of orange juice, or dodging a four-year-old toddling up and down the aisle in a Superman suit.

As the words of the old song say, ``Smile, darn you, smile!''

As if being convicted as a failed smiler wasn't bad enough, Mr. Cox caught further flak for not making a practice of initiating conversations with passengers.

Hark! Do we hear a small chorus from the coach section crying, ``Stop the plane! I want to get off!''?

Well, it's about time. We've listened to obiter dicta from the judge. We've read memos from an airline executive. How about a little testimony by the people for whom all these ``friendly facial expressions'' are allegedly required? Here follows ``An Open Letter From the Society of Concerned Passengers'':

``We, the undersigned, protest the assumption that the only people who fly are hearty extroverts who must be dealt with by hearty extroverts in a matey manner so exaggerated as to embarrass a 25th class reunion.

``All airlines, attention! This is your passenger speaking. Please don't feel that flight attendants have to smile from ear to ear, all the time, at everybody. After a very short while, the glazed smile at 30,000 feet is enough to bring tears to the eyes of the customer.

``Nobody wants to fly the unfriendly skies. But unremitting high-altitude jolliness can convert a whole cabin to the sport of sky-diving.

``What a passenger puts out money for is a ticket to get him swiftly and without excessive discomfort from point A to point B. He is not bargaining for a role in a sitcom titled `Love Plane.'

``Even if simulated friendliness were the purpose, a simulated smile is not necessarily the answer. Who says a smile is the only `friendly facial expression'? In fact, there are few things in life less intimate than the official smile -- the athletic expanse of white teeth flashed by politicians running for office and head waiters pocketing a tip.

``Who knows? Maybe Flight Attendant Cox had kind eyes. Lots of us passengers prefer warm eyes to cold teeth.

``Sure. We all want to be loved. But we want the real thing -- from those we leave behind or those we fly to meet. In between we'll settle for courtesy and your box lunch. So thank you for thanking us for flying your airlines, but let's not get carried away by it.

``One more point -- this for Judge Belew. Legislating a smile or any other `facial expression' is a dangerous business. Let's suppose the judge is one of those dry wits, used to making a salty aside as he hands down a verdict. How would he feel if the Justice Department issued a memo ruling that an `unfriendly facial expression' was `an integral part of the job' of being a judge, and if he didn't wipe that undignified smile off his face, he could giggle his way straight to the unemployment line?

``We're asking this tit-for-tat question with a sort of friendly twinkle in the eye, but we're not exactly smiling either.

``Yours for freedom of expression (facial, that is),'' (Signed) The Passengers.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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