Out of the plane, into Internet glory

Steve Slater exits a Bronx correctional facility after posting $2,500 bail Tuesday.
Steve Slater exits a Bronx correctional facility after posting $2,500 bail Tuesday. (Tony Fitts)

JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater lionized for his profane, um, resignation.

Posted: August 12, 2010

He cursed her on the intercom

So that everyone could hear

And he then bid his adieu

And he grabbed himself a beer

- Max Sparber, "Ballad of Steve Slater"

Whether it's Billy the Kid, Jesse James, or John Wesley Hardin, Americans since frontier days have immortalized outlaws in ballads, books, and now movies.

But a song about Steven Slater?

The disgruntled JetBlue Airways flight attendant on Monday became an instant folk hero when he bid adieu to his job with drama and flair - in ways most people only dream of - after an uncooperative passenger got on his last nerve.

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 140,000 people had registered as fans on a Facebook page set up in Slater's name. Other pages inspired by his case include "Free Steven Slater" with 30,000 fans and "I Support Steven Slater." And "Free Slater" T-shirts already are on sale at CustomInk.com.

Fans have pledged donations to the "Steven Slater Legal Defense Fund."

Late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon jumped on the bandwagon Tuesday, singing - literally - Slater's praises with "The Ballad of Steven Slater."

"Who among us has not fantasized about quitting their job in precisely this fashion," a Slater fan posted on a discussion board.

Surely, agents are lining up to book him on morning, afternoon, and evening gabfests.

And no doubt the TV movies will follow.

Slater, 38, was arrested on Monday after he had a meltdown on Flight 1052 upon landing at JFK. Having been insulted by an unruly passenger, Slater delivered an invective-filled tirade over the plane's intercom.

"Those of you who have shown dignity and respect these last 20 years, thanks for a great ride," he said before grabbing a beer and exiting the plane using its emergency slide.

And into the hearts of a public that could identify with workplace frustration.

Free on $2,500 bail after being arraigned Tuesday in a Queens, N.Y., court on charges of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, and trespassing, Slater was heartened by the general reaction to his bombastic act.

"It seems like something here has resonated with a few people," he said.

"And that's kind of neat."

Neat indeed. Many fans appreciate the manner in which Slater quit the plane, his job, and perhaps his liberty - he could face up to seven years in prison.

Some compare Slater to Peter Finch's character in the 1976 film Network, a TV news commentator who entreated his fellow citizens to open their windows and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

But a Pittsburgher who says that Slater was his flight attendant one day earlier recalled him as high-strung and grumpy despite an uneventful flight.

Joe Miksch, a magazine editor from the North Side, flew JetBlue to New York on Sunday. Slater greeted passengers in the doorway. "He really seemed to be forcing a smile. He seemed a lot less sincere than they usually do," Miksch said.

During the short flight, "[Slater] seemed exasperated when I asked him for a Coke after I had already had a bottle of water. It seemed like a great deal of trouble for him."

Still, Philly author and self-described angry man Buzz Bissinger admires Slater's style. "I must say I did like his dramatic exit," says Bissinger, who says he has been involved in a few explosive verbal interchanges with staff from various airlines.

"His reaction was very human. And he overreacted, which I have done [dozens] of times."

Bissinger says Slater taps into collective rage over corporate America's increasingly predatory attitude toward customers and employees alike.

"There is such a stripping to the bone . . . and they are trying to make as much money and screwing everyone," he says. "And it's miserable."

Despite the serious charges against Slater, JetBlue has surprisingly stepped into the blogosphere, poking fun at all the attention.

"Perhaps you heard a little story about one of our flight attendants?" the blog joked.

JetBlue Airways Corp., based in Queens, didn't comment on specifics of the case but acknowledged that Slater's meltdown has resonated beyond airline employees, saying the event "may feed your inner Office Space," a reference to the 1999 comedy about disgruntled technology workers.

Philadelphia psychoanalyst Lawrence D. Blum says Slater's meltdown touches us on a deeper, primal level.

"[Slater] handled the situation in a way that apparently resonated with a very widespread universal fantasy - a dramatic protest against oppressive authority," Blum says.

Journalism professor Christopher Harper, though, objects to the way the media seem to encourage support for Slater.

"People see the headline and the beginning of the story and say that's funny," says Harper, who teaches at Temple. "I feel like that myself. But then you think about it for a minute, and what he did is really dangerous." As prosecutors have pointed out, the emergency slide Slater inflated could have seriously injured someone.

Harper points out that movies, TV shows, and songs encourage people to valorize violent, dramatic resolutions to daily problems.

"It's the reaction where I say 'I want to go out with a blaze of glory' . . . the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid moment," he says, referring to the 1969 film which ended with its two heroes dying in a glorious hail of bullets.

"What did [Slater] get? Fifteen minutes of relief and 15 minutes of fame. Now he has to face the consequences."


Contact Inquirer staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com. The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this article.

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