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A Behind the Scenes Look at Air Travel.

Writer and flight attendant Elliott Neal Hester. He writes the bimonthly column "Out of the Blue" for the online magazine, Salon. He's also working on an upcoming book about flying the "not so friendly skies."


Other segments from the episode on August 24, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 24, 1999: Interview with Douglas Brian "Pete" Peterson; Interview with Elliot Neal Hester.


Date: AUGUST 24, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082401np.217
Head: "Assignment Hanoi": A POW Returns to Vietnam
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, tells us about his return to the country that once held him captive. Peterson was a POW for nearly seven years during the Vietnam War. Now he's the first ambassador to Vietnam since the war's end. There's a new PBS documentary about him called "Assignment Hanoi."

Also, the skies are filed with summer vacationers, and the cramped plane rides and often long airport waits are the source of many frustrations. We'll talk about flying frustrations with flight attendant Elliott Neal Hester. He writes a travel column for

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After spending six and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, during which he was interrogated and tortured, Pete Peterson returned to live in Hanoi in 1997, this time as the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. He's the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975, and the first ever to serve in Hanoi. His decision to return has been applauded by some and left others mystified. Now he's the subject of a PBS documentary called "Pete Peterson: Assignment Hanoi," which will be broadcast on September 7th.

Peterson was flying his 67th bombing mission over North Vietnam when he was shot down and taken prisoner. After his release in 1973, he remained in the military for eight years, then headed a contracting company and a computer company. From 1990 to '96, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Florida.

We called him in Hanoi.


Now, why did you want to go back? I think a lot of people would assume that your mind would be filled with nightmarish associations with Hanoi, and the people you'd be living with are the people in whose name you had been tortured. So did you have any reservations about going back? Why did you want to do it?

PETE PETERSON, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO VIETNAM: No, I had well resolved all of those things in my own mind. The reconciliation had taken place. I had visited Vietnam twice prior to coming back on this occasion, and it has played out precisely as I had intended, in that the Vietnamese have accepted me. I have worked into this project here in a very constructive way, and I think it's worked out well for both sides.

From the standpoint of memories, they're virtually gone. I -- it's so rare before I have any problems with that that it's just not even something to worry about.

GROSS: You were a bomber. You flew about 67 missions over North Vietnam during the war. Were you concerned that the North Vietnamese would treat you with suspicion because you had bombed their country during the war?

PETERSON: Well, that was my original concern. It was, indeed. But my two previous visits here had somewhat laid some of those back to not being worried too much about it. But at the same time, coming back in a diplomatic circumstance versus my earlier, as a member of Congress, I just didn't know how they were going to react to that. And it turned out they reacted very well and very positively and very supportive of virtually everything I'm trying to do here.

GROSS: Have you met any of the men who tortured or guarded you when you were in prison? And do you know what they're doing now?

PETERSON: I have met a number of them. I've met and interviewed, actually, a former camp commander of one of the camps where I lived, and have had the occasion to at least pass conversation with a couple of the former guards, but not many. I have not sought them out, and they have not sought me out, in fact. So it's just not some experience that I have had here.

GROSS: What is the appropriate etiquette when, during the course of a day's work as ambassador, you run into at some kind of function someone who ran the prison that you were a prisoner in?

PETERSON: It's a circumstance long past. It's a period of time, of course, when we were in combat, and we knew we were in combat. We were still fighting the war the whole time we were here. And so it's -- it was just another part of our resistance to work against them, and they, of course, were doing what they were supposed to do, and that's to guard us and to keep us from being effective in causing any disruption in their society. So it was a professional relationship, in many ways, even though a very hard one. And it wouldn't bother me to meet any of them, at this moment.

GROSS: The war in Vietnam was fought by the Americans to prevent South Vietnam from being taken over by the communist North, but that's exactly what ended up happening. How does the reality of a communist Vietnam compare to what you thought would happen, the scenario you were fighting to prevent from happening?

PETERSON: Well, things have changed dramatically in this country, and certainly, within the systems of this country. Vietnam still is a country undergoing major transition, politically certainly, economically without a doubt, and culturally and generationally.

So all of those things are different than the timeframes that we were looking at this country in the '60s and '70s. It's just -- it's not even comparable. The snapshots would never match, even in one single piece of the frame. And so it's hard to try to judge what we were thinking then against what we're thinking now, and also at the attitude.

When you look at Vietnam today, you're looking at the 12th most populous nation in the world. And of that population of 80 million, 65 percent are under the age of 26. These are young people who essentially want to do the same things as young people all over the world, and that's, you know, reach their potential, get an education, have a better quality of life. And that's the snapshot of Vietnam today, and it has nothing to do with the '60s or '70s.

GROSS: So do you find that the younger people -- are they indifferent to the war's history or are they just more open towards Americans or what?

PETERSON: No, they're -- they know about as much of the Vietnam War as an American teenager in a local high school there in America. And that's not much. They're spending their time studying economics and English and science and doing everything they can to prepare themselves for the emergence of Vietnam into the world stage. And it's going to be successful, primarily because of the energy and the zest that you see in that youthful group.

GROSS: What aspects of American culture have caught on in Vietnam?

PETERSON: Oh, virtually everything. The Vietnamese -- because it's a very young society, you can imagine that they like very much the sort of pop culture that America brings. American music is very, very popular. The Cokes and Pepsis, and now they're getting into some of the fast foods, with -- KFC is here. And they're into bowling. They've got a whole host of things that have America written all over them. And you walk down the streets, and you just can't pass a block without seeing multiple T-shirts with American logos and "Go Tigers" and everything that you could imagine. Just walking around the streets, you have Americana everywhere.

GROSS: How does the Vietnamese government reconcile people wearing clothes with American business logos on it -- how do they reconcile that with a communist-socialist state?

PETERSON: Well, actually, I think you need to understand that the communist-socialist state is quite different from what maybe a political science major may suggest. The Vietnamese really -- you're really hard-pressed to call them pure communists. In fact, in my view, I think communism is dead worldwide. It's just they've used the word.

The Vietnamese are clearly socialist-nationalist. And frankly, they may have always been. I think they've manipulated the communist relationships they've had with their past partners very well in order to get assistance during the war and then after. I think that the Vietnamese would look at the T-shirts, whether they're a party member of a member of the government or just a local business person, as just part of the way of doing business now. It's not a big deal. It's, in fact, welcomed, I believe, in most spheres.

GROSS: What remains of the MIA question? There are still Americans who were missing in action, and their whereabouts have never been determined. There's been a lot of demands to pressure the Vietnamese even more to come up with information about the MIAs. Do you feel that the Vietnamese have done their best in supplying that information?

PETERSON: The Vietnamese are doing quite a lot. In fact, the relationship between the U.S. and the Vietnamese in regard to the MIA question is excellent. I mean, we -- we have made progress in this effort that I wished more Americans really knew about. I don't think we've done a good job in telling the story. In fact, I am calling, and I think we are collectively calling the relationship with the Vietnamese on the MIA question a partnership now, more than just cooperation, as we are helping them discover the fate of their 300,000 MIAs, whereby we now have in Vietnam roughly 1,500 persons that we still do not have absolute documentation as to fate.

We're continuing to work this issue. And to be honest with you, Terry, this remains our number one issue in working with the Vietnamese. It's something that I spend an inordinate amount of my time on, and we have assigned here experts that are absolutely world-class in dealing with this kind of issue and are making the kinds of investigations that are necessary to discover the fate of these that we have lost. And I think, too, that it should be noted that the commitment on the part of the American side and the Vietnamese side is something that is historic.

GROSS: Have many MIAs been found since your tenure as ambassador?

PETERSON: Oh, yes. We repatriate the remains of from -- it probably averages five a month, or five every other month, I guess it is, because we have our investigations every other month. Overall, since we began this process, we've probably discovered the fate of 500, would be my guess, in that ballpark.

GROSS: How have the remains of men who are MIA been discovered? Did people already have clues in which there were grave sites, or are these just, like, accidental discoveries?

PETERSON: No, I can assure you they're not accidental. Once in a while, we'll find something, like the villagers in the highlands here last fall gave us a call and said that they had found the remains. And sure enough, we went down and discovered the -- virtually an entire skeleton. And not only that, but that individual had all of his identification still on him. So we not only had the remains, but we also had essentially instant identification. That was -- that was a rare find, obviously.

Most of the time, we go back to sites whereby we knew within a few meters, probably, of where the aircraft crashed or where the battle took place or what occurred at such a location. And then we'll actually go back and stake it out, and we'll go through an excavation, just like we were going through an excavation for -- looking for dinosaurs. I mean, it's just -- it's a very professional process by which we -- we're looking through every little spoonful of dirt for some evidence. And we have been very, very successful in this process.

GROSS: Is there much of a land mine problem in Vietnam now?

PETERSON: Yes, there is.

GROSS: It's become an international controversy...

PETERSON: There's...

GROSS: ... how to deal with that.

PETERSON: There's a very serious problem, and mostly in the area around the old DMZ. That's really the most critical area. But there are still areas throughout all of Vietnam where we've dropped munitions, generally airborne munitions, that have not exploded. And unexploded ordinance is part of the problem that we're calling "mines." It's not mine, land mine, as you and I would think of it, but it's largely a problem of unexploded ordinance.

GROSS: Do you think some of those unexploded ordinances are ordinances that you might have dropped yourself?

PETERSON: It's not unlikely. It's very possible. It's everywhere. It's really a huge problem. We are, in fact, offering assistance to the Vietnamese in that area. And at this very moment, the Vietnamese are mulling around an agreement that we're trying to get them to sign, essentially, that would bring in trainers and perhaps some more modern equipment from what they have been using to remove those ordinances.


GROSS: Joining us from Hanoi is Pete Peterson, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. He was a POW in North Vietnam for six and a half years.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Pete Peterson. In 1997 he became the first American ambassador to Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975. He's also the first U.S. ambassador to be stationed in Hanoi, which was the capital of North Vietnam. Peterson was a pilot during the war. He was shot down on his 67th bombing mission and held prisoner of war for over six years. A documentary about him will be broadcast on public television September 7th.


One of the problems that you're trying to address now with a new program is safety. You've initiated or helped to initiate a safety awareness program. You told me before one of the really big problems now is traffic, that a lot of people are getting killed in traffic accidents. What's traffic like in Vietnam now?

PETERSON: It is just catastrophic. It's unbelievable. It's -- just crossing the street is a great risk, I can assure you. It's one of those things that there is just no one in this country that has any sense about -- or sensibility about the safety aspects of one's life. And that's what we're trying to do.

We're trying to bring to the Vietnamese the understanding that they have to be responsible not only for their life, but for all of those around them, which is something that Americans just take for granted. Here it's just not even considered. They just -- just drive right out in front of you or walk out in front of you or place poisons where their little -- their children have easy access, or they'll have power lines essentially running over the top of their bed. Or they'll construct walls that are without foundations, and they'll crash in on them and kill people.

It's just -- it's just -- they aren't thinking safety in their everyday life, and we're working very hard to make that a part of our relationship, but at the same time help the Vietnamese government to take this message to the people through their schools and through their media.

GROSS: About a year ago, you married the woman who heads the Australian Trade Commission in Vietnam. She's Vietnamese, although for many years she lived in Australia. I think she moved there with her family in 1977. This seems to have taken on much larger, symbolic importance in Vietnam, you know, that the American ambassador is married to a woman who is of Vietnamese descent.

PETERSON: Well, it has, indeed, had a remarkable -- brought a remarkable interest on the part of the Vietnamese, I think, and I think all positively. Vie (ph) is just a jewel from the standpoint of having the knowledge of the culture and also as a professional woman, she essentially is a role model for a lot of Vietnamese women, too, I'm certain.

But she also helps a great deal in my work because she's very sensitive to not only what America is doing and wants to do, but what the international community can do in Vietnam to help them along in developing their economy and to bring them along in the adoption of international standards, all of those things. So yeah, it's been -- it's been a wonderful thing to have met and now married her with all of her wonderful attributes, aside from the fact she's quite beautiful and a lovely person to be with.

GROSS: I have a question about women in Vietnam. During the war in Vietnam, there were -- it appeared that there were a lot of women in the North Vietnam army who were doing the kind of work that women were not doing at that time in American Army. And I think a lot of women in America took notice of that. I'm wondering if that has carried over to life after the war, if women have a place of equality in Vietnamese culture in terms of work and pay and respect?

PETERSON: I -- they're clearly -- the Vietnamese women are clearly the major assets in Vietnam. They do 75 percent of the work, manual labor even, in Vietnam. They control all the money. I'm convinced of that. No Vietnamese family has two pockets for the money, as it's always in the woman's pocket. And they have great power in that respect.

On the other hand, they're -- from a family point of view, they still are the lesser person in the hierarchy, so to speak, and it's a -- it's been a difficult challenge for them, but I see them emerging as a much more powerful voice in this country. The very point of fact that 26.6 percent of the national assembly is made up of women would suggest somewhat of a change in attitudes on the role of women in Vietnam. And we see that, essentially, every day through commerce and through government offices and the kinds of people we deal with.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

PETERSON: It was my pleasure.


GROSS: Pete Peterson is the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. A new documentary about him called "Assignment Hanoi" will be broadcast on public television September 7th.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Pete Peterson
High: Pete Peterson, the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War, discusses his return to the country that once held him captive. Peterson was a POW for nearly seven years during the Vietnam War. A PBS documentary called "Pete Peterson: Assignment Hanoi" will tell his story next month.
Spec: War; Vietnam; Prisons; "Assignment Hanoi"; Radio and Television; Politics

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Assignment Hanoi": A POW Returns to Vietnam

Date: AUGUST 24, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082402NP.217
Head: The Problems with Airline Travel
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I've come to dread air travel. The often long wait at the airport, the cramped seating, the stuffy cabin, the bad food, the smelly bathrooms, and the drama of trying to make your connecting flight. And when you're on the plane, the only person around to complain to is the flight attendant.

My guest, Elliott Neal Hester, has been a flight attendant for 14 years. He also writes the travel column "Out of the Blue" for the online magazine ""

We invited him to give us a behind-the-scenes look at air travel and why there's so much frustration among airline passengers. I asked him about the most frequent complaints he hears.

ELLIOTT NEAL HESTER, WRITER/FLIGHT ATTENDANT: I think most people are really concerned because seating tends to be a problem. The seats are more cramped than they used to be, and people are upset because there's a lower grade of service. There used to be much more elaborate service on many of the flights. And nowadays, quite often on the short-haul flights especially, there's no food at all, not even peanuts.

And so people tend to be crabbier, people tend to be more frustrated, angrier, and that's part of the cause.

GROSS: Let me get to the food, because I think that's a pet peeve that a lot of travelers have. I'll tell you, the last flight I was on, it was a dinner flight, and we got ground beef with a little bit of corn and beans. And first of all, I'm thinking, beans on an airplane? Not smart.

HESTER: Not a good idea in a tight-quartered...

GROSS: (laughing) Not a good idea.

HESTER: ... airplane.

GROSS: And ground beef, I mean, so many people don't eat beef right now. And there was, of course...

HESTER: Right, right.

GROSS: ... like, no other option. And the -- and, of course, the food was bad, and plus the portions were really small. So what's going on with the food? Why are portions so small? Why has the food gotten worse?

HESTER: I wish I could tell you exactly, but...

GROSS: I'm not getting angry at you, by the way, I just -- (laughs)

HESTER: No, no, don't hit me, Terry, please.

GROSS: ... I thought you might know. (laughs)

HESTER: No, I think a lot of it has to do with budgeting on the airlines. A lot of airline pricing and catering is based off of what everybody else is doing. If you're flying to Europe, typically the service is more elaborate, Europe and South America. Of course, the flights are longer, there's more of a higher grade of service that's included and that's publicized.

So people expect more. But if you're flying from Chicago to Toledo, and it's only, I'm sure, maybe a two-hour flight or an hour and a half flight, there's not going to be much more than peanuts if everybody else is serving that.

GROSS: You get to see all the meals that are served. In your professional opinion, is it worth ordering one of the special meals? You know, vegetarian or Kosher or any of the other special ones that they have?

HESTER: Yes, it is, actually. You know, there are some pretty good meals. There's, you know, fruit platters and, you know, of course, Kosher meals, and vegetarian meals. But I think a larger number of people are beginning to bring their own food on the plane, especially on...

GROSS: Yes, yes, I do that sometimes.

HESTER: Yes, it's a smart thing to do. Because, I mean, now, with the change in airport catering, airport concessions, it used to be that five, six, seven years ago, you'd pay $3 for a hot dog and that's about all you can get, maybe and a slice of pizza.

But now, at most of the airports, in Dallas, in New York, in Miami -- in fact, Miami's airport just opened up a new concourse with -- or just redesigned a concourse filled with new restaurants. And so you can buy your favorite fast foods, you can buy Whoppers, you can buy chicken, pizza, just about anything.

But that actually causes a different problem, because now you have all these aromas, these conflicting aromas on the airplane, and people are actually starting to complain about that. So it seems to be a constant problem either way.

GROSS: What do they complain about? Are they getting nauseous from it?

HESTER: Well, actually, I did a piece in "National Geographic Traveler," a small piece in the Smart Traveler section, about this very subject. And it was about -- I quoted a gentleman here in Miami who was traveling on a trip from here to Washington, from Miami to Washington. And he said there was a woman who sat next to him who had an egg salad sandwich that she'd been -- probably been carrying around for three or four hours.

And, you know, the bag was sort of, like, leaking, and, you know, she opened it, and this waft of very funky air came out. And she started eating it. He said he felt like he was going to throw up.

And, you know, you get a lot of that. You have -- maybe the guy ahead of him was eating something with curry in it, and somebody behind is eating, you know, something a bit spicy. And so you have the sort of mixing odors that can sometimes kill the olfactory glands. So I really don't know how that's going to change.

GROSS: On one of my recent flights -- the flight was overbooked by 20 people. So it took an hour while the flight agents had to make all kinds of offers to people to give up their tickets so that we could take off.

And finally I -- what they were giving away was, you know, like a flight the next morning to the same place in first -- but in first class, plus a free ticket to any place in the continental United States, plus, you know, if you weren't from Philadelphia, where the plane was, a free stay in a hotel while you made it -- waited to the next flight in the morning.

I'm thinking, This is costing a lot of money. They're not saving any money here by overbooking the flight by 20 people.

What's the strategy, do you know?

HESTER: I have a pretty good idea. I mean, well, actually they are saving money. That voucher -- they're not giving you hard cash to travel somewhere else. Sometimes when they have to put you up in a hotel, yes, they are spending money.

But if they oversold the flight and -- by, you know, that 30 or 40 people, most people don't cancel their reservations. So if that's true, you would have planes, if you booked according to the number of seats, there's 138 seats in coach on a 727, and you allow 138 people to book and book only, I guarantee you, on a regular basis that plane would go out with 70 or 75 passengers. And that's just not economical.

So what they do is, they overbook it by a certain percentage depending on the market. Certain markets have a higher percentage of no-shows. So they book them accordingly. And it's a necessary -- unfortunately, it's a necessary option.

GROSS: My guest is flight attendant and travel writer Elliott Neal Hester. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is flight attendant Elliott Neal Hester. He also writes the travel column "Out of the Blue" for ""

Do flight attendants ever have the chance to pass on passenger comments to executives in the airline and say, Look, the passengers are really frustrated, they hate the food, the plane smells?

HESTER: I don't think it actually gets that far, and when it does, it's not as -- I don't believe it's taken as seriously as it should be. You know, the airline has a history of -- airlines have a history passengers first, and nothing to upset the passenger. And I think that's beginning to change, because just so many things that have been going wrong, there's so many problems on the airplane now.

There was a "20/20" report on 1997, Hugh Downs was talking about this very fact. And there was a representative from one of the airlines, one of the major airlines, who was quoted on air as saying that, "There are some passengers that we just do not want." And that's the first time I remember in recent history hearing an airline actually make a statement like that. That's a brand-new type of thinking.

So hopefully these comments will start filtering in to management a little bit easier, and there'll be a greater reaction and action taken about the complaints that are being lodged.

GROSS: What are -- you said there are so many problems on the airplanes now. What kind of problems are you referring to?

HESTER: Well, I think the biggest problem is what's being called air rage. There's this sort of an outbreak of violent passenger attacks, both on flight crew and on other passengers. And it's creating a -- not only a safety issue, but it's wreaking havoc in just about every country as well.

GROSS: Have you experienced air rage yourself? Have you been on planes where somebody's really blown their top?

HESTER: Yes, a couple of times, couple of times. I was on a flight where there was a guy who tried to attack me. But at the last minute he decided not to. But he just -- he was drunk, and I think he was doing drugs as well. And he started yelling and screaming, and the passengers started screaming at me to do something.

So I went over to him and I asked him, you know, what the problem was. And he said he wanted another Jack Daniels and a beer, which, of course, was out of the question. And when I told him that, he looked as if he was going to jump me. And I was seeing -- trying to see exactly where I was going to throw him with his body weight, and there was nobody behind me.

So -- and at the last minute he changed his mind and sat down, and just proceeded to yell and scream and cuss at me and the other flight attendants. Finally we had to call one of the pilots, who -- they sent the flight engineer back. He sort of -- the sacrificial lamb, if you will. He's the guy sitting behind the cockpit, behind the captain and the first officer.

So he came back, tried to defuse the situation, and the passenger lit into him. And eventually he was arrested at the airport.

And the weird thing is that -- about this incident is that two months after that, I get a knock on my door at home, and it's a private investigator. And he says that he's investigating the incident on the airplane. So I was interested, and I sat him down and he started talking. And it turns out that he was actually working for the attorney who represented the passenger.

And it seems that the passenger was now suing the airline, because -- get this -- we shouldn't have boarded him in the first place.

GROSS: What?

HESTER: He said that he was -- he said that -- he said that he was intoxicated, and we should have known he was intoxicated, and that we should never have boarded him. Therefore, it was our fault that the incident occurred, and he was suing the airline.

GROSS: Do you have any theories about why air rage seems to be on the rise?

HESTER: Yes, I do, in fact. I think a lot of it has to do with -- and it's been written about in news reports. A lot of it has to do with the cramped seating. People are busier, there's more stress, the airlines and the airports are more crowded. And one issue that a lot of people have and really talked about is the fact that there are so many smokers who are actually unable to smoke and who act out.

I had a woman on a flight a few months ago who literally -- she almost had a nervous breakdown because she was -- she stood up in the aisle and she started crying, and she says, "I have to smoke, I have to smoke!" And she was trembling, and, you know, we gave her candy, and somebody gave her some chewing gum. But she literally started trembling and shaking. She was having withdrawal, nicotine withdrawal.

Luckily, she was the type of person who was a bit more reserved, and she, of course, you know, played out her frustration with tears. But had it been a more physical individual, maybe a man who was upset, he may have started swinging or doing something else. And I'm sure that's happened on many occasions.

GROSS: Do you think that there's a need now for security during air flights?

HESTER: You know, I hate to say this, but probably yes. Because it's gotten to the point where -- and I'm not a fatalist, but unfortunately it's going to take a serious incident where the cockpit is involved, where somebody tries to break into the cockpit, before this is taken seriously. This already happened in a couple of other countries. And it's happened here as well.

But flight attendants are not equipped, of course, to handle the situation physically. You know, most flight attendants are women, and most of the men creating the problem, of course, are bigger than they are. And even if the flight attendants were larger and more adept at handling themselves physically, flight attendants aren't cops. You know, we're not employed to control behavior and to inflict punishment and to restrain people.

That's not our occupation. So it's just a matter of time before a serious problem erupts. And I don't know if air marshals are the case or are the solution, but ultimately something new is going to have to be introduced to stop this kind of behavior.

GROSS: I imagine you see a fair number of people who are terrified of flying but for some reason have to make the trip. Can you usually tell in advance who's really scared?

HESTER: No, you can never tell in advance, unless, of course, that person makes that concern available to you. A lot of times you'll see someone who is -- you know, you'll have a guy who refuses to buckle his seat belt, or he wants to stand up and walk when we're on the taxiway, or he wants to demand something or argue or, you know...

And you can see -- I actually had one gentleman who actually took me in the back of the galley, and after he had been sort of acting up and yelling and screaming and, you know, had a -- he had a conflict with a couple of flight attendants.

And then I took him to the back and I started talking to him. I said, "Look, you know, this isn't right, I mean, you know, you need to calm down." And the guy kind of just shook his head and said, "I'm really sorry, I just hate to fly." And that was that.

GROSS: Right. Have you ever been in a near-crash?

HESTER: I was in an emergency. No, I wasn't in a crash, a near-crash. But I was in a situation where the captain called about five minutes outside of Aguadilla (ph), Puerto Rico, we were supposed to land there. And about five minutes before landing he called the back.

And I picked up the phone. And he told us that we had lost both hydraulic systems, and that the landing gear wouldn't go down, and that we were going to divert from Aguadilla to San Juan because it was raining in Aguadilla, and he didn't want to compound the problem.

So as we diverted, we -- he tried to crank the landing gear down manually. It was a 727. And while he was doing that, the flight engineer and myself went out and we had to rip up the carpet in first class. There's a manhole right in first class in the aisle, and we popped the manhole cover open and shined a flashlight down, because there's an indicator that tells you whether the landing gear is actually locked when you're cranking it down in a manual mode.

And the flight engineer saw the indicator. I didn't, I wish I had, because I would have been a bit more comfortable. But I didn't, apparently he did. And while this was going on, you know, passengers are crying, and, you know, some of the most condescending ones are suddenly looking at you and with all the respect and admiration. And they're willing to take any sort of order from you at that point.

And in this particular flight, a gentleman sitting near the window exit actually reached over and tried to open the window exit in flight. And at high altitudes, of course, the window exit won't open because of pressurization. But we were pretty low. I'm not sure, about 15,000, 14,000 feet when this happened, and I'm not sure exactly at what point the exit can be opened.

But I had to physically grab this guy and take him off the window exit. And I said to him, "What are you doing?" And he just started blabbering. He just lost it. People just lose it when they get scared, it's just a human -- it's a human trait.

During that same flight, while all this was going on, two passengers went into the bathroom and started snorting cocaine. I mean, why you would want to be high on cocaine during an emergency evacuation, I don't know. At the same time, a passenger...

GROSS: How did you know they were snorting cocaine?

HESTER: They went in the bathroom together, and all you heard was, (makes sniffing sounds). And then they came out with white powder on their cheeks. And, you know, I mean, I've been around a little bit. I kind of knew what was going on. So -- and there was residue in the washbasin.

And in the other bathroom at the same time, a gentleman came in the back, and he started smoking a cigarette. And he left the burning cigarette in the bathroom.

So you got these people snorting cocaine, you got this guy smoking a cigarette, you have the guy trying to open the window exit. You have an emergency to deal with. And it's, like, what's happening with these people?

GROSS: (laughs) Were there people praying also?

HESTER: Oh, praying, crying, and, you know, asking me to hold their hands, and, you know -- and when we landed, you know, I was pretty tense with landing, because you weren't sure whether or not the landing gear was going to lock. So as we're descending, you know, people are praying out loud and crying and screaming. And the landing gear apparently held, and everything was OK.

So -- and we tried to get the guy who was smoking arrested, and there was a big squabble at the airport. And it's just, you know, one of those days you'd like to forget. But, you know, that happens.

GROSS: What about your reaction while all this was happening? Did you maintain good control of your emotions?

HESTER: Yes, well, you know, it's funny, I'm not trying to be one of these, like, you know, macho guys. But I'm one of the people that when there's an emergency, I usually don't freak out. I freak out when I get home.

And I think it happened through scuba diving training. I remember my instructor when he was training me, he says, "Look, you know, if you're in an emergency under water and you freak out, Elliott, you're going to die, so don't freak out."

And after that, I actually had an emergency under water where I got wedged between two rocks, and I freaked out. And I saw myself dying, and I said, No, no, my instructor said don't freak out. So I just thought myself through the situation, I pulled off my BCD, I squeezed out of the rock, I put my BCD back on, and everything was OK.

So when we have these emergencies on the airplane, and hopefully I'll never have to deal with one, I like to think that I'll maintain my composure and then, you know, freak out when I'm watching television at home.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Elliott Neal Hester. He's a commercial airline flight attendant, and he writes a bimonthly column called "Out of the Blue" for "" He's currently writing a book of the same name.

Elliott, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

HESTER: OK, thanks a lot.



GROSS: My guest is Elliot Neal Hester. He's a commercial airline flight attendant and writes a bimonthly column called "Out of the Blue" for ""

How often do you have to deal with airsickness, and how effective are those little airsickness bags that you get in the pouch in front of you? (laughs)

HESTER: (laughs) Well, it's funny, I just wrote a piece about it in my column on "" about inflight regurgitation. It was a really funny piece, at least I think, about the thing that happens. I was actually on a plane once where there was this 300-pound vacationer who had eaten three servings of airplane lasagna, and apparently it didn't agree with him, so he just threw up.

And without getting graphic, it was just a big, nasty mess. And the plane was crowded. And everybody looked at this guy, and all of a sudden at least two dozen people leaned into the aisle and retched, one after another.

GROSS: Oh, God!

HESTER: It was sort of like domino vomiting. And it was just -- it was -- And I wrote the story, it's -- strange as it may seem -- I wrote the story, it came out on the 29th of June, and the very next day I got 25 e-mails for flight attendants, from passengers, telling me that, oh, they had -- "The same thing happened to me." In fact, a flight attendant told me the same thing. She said it was even worse than this. She said almost everybody got sick after this one guy vomited.

GROSS: Do the airsickness bags ever do their job?

HESTER: Yes, oh, yes, yes, they work, you know, with those passengers who are adept at handling them. I mean, if you catch yourself at the moment where it's about to happen, and, you know, you grab the bag and you do what you have to do, yes, it works fine.

GROSS: And then they hand the bag to you. (laugh)

HESTER: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. (laughs) No, I mean, you know, I've taken them before. I mean, I've taken bags before. And I've dumped them. But, you know, a lot of flight attendants tend to get kind of squeamish about that. You know, and there's -- it's like with diapers, you know, I mean, there's was a situation with -- actually a friend of mine who was on a plane, and she's working the aisle serving meals.

And a passenger thrusts this object at her while she's serving meals. And the passenger says, "Take this." And our friend said, "Well, that's a used baby diaper." And the passenger says, "Just take it." She says, "Well, you need to take that to the bathroom yourself and deposit it in the trash receptacle." And she says, "No, I want you to take it." She says, "Ma'am, I'm serving food. It's unsanitary for me to handle a dirty baby diaper and then serve food."

And the woman said, "Take it." The passenger says -- and the flight attendant said no. So the passenger takes the diaper and she throws it at the flight attendant, hits her in the head. She's got baby crap in her hair. And she loses her mind. She goes berserk. She starts strangling the passenger, and she's banging her head against the floor.

And -- (laughs) -- and the passengers, they're trying to pull them apart. But, of course, nobody wants to get next to the baby dung that's in her hair, so it's a bit more difficult to handle the situation. And finally they separate them, and of course the flight attendant almost lost her job because of that.

GROSS: Well, we've talked about several of the problems that you have to deal with as a flight attendant. Do people ever behave in a sexually inappropriate way during a flight?

HESTER: It's happened. It's happened quite a few times, actually. I've been on flights where I've caught, you know, people, you know, going into the bathroom together, or, you know -- and, you know, under blankets in the back, and, you know, on all-night flights and things like that.

And it's strange you should ask that, because it's actually becoming a growing issue. There was a situation on South African Airlines last year where there was a couple in business class. And apparently it was almost full in business class, and they were flying from Johannesburg to London, I believe.

And somewhere during the middle of the flight -- I don't know if these people were together or if they just met on the flight -- but they both disrobed from the waist down. And the woman turned and straddled her seat mate, and they started having sex right there in the seat. And all the passengers, of course, were watching this happening. And they got upset.

So they hit their call lights, you know, they hit their call lights and expect the flight attendants to stop this. The flight attendants come out and tell these people, while they're engaged in sexual intercourse, to stop doing it. And they wouldn't stop. They had to get the captain. The captain had to come back. And from what I understand, he had to physically separate them. They just would not stop.

In London's Heathrow Airport in a two-year period, there have been 15 people arrested for having sex on the airplane. Singapore Airlines in the last year, a full one-third of their passenger misconduct cases have been sexual in nature. And it's just -- a lot of the U.S. airlines are so embarrassed about the issue that they're not even willing to talk about it.

GROSS: If you suspect that a couple is enjoying each other under a blanket, are you discreet about it, or will you say something that -- about -- I mean, what -- what -- what -- what's -- what are your boundaries there? What's acceptable and what's not?

HESTER: Well, you know, believe it or not, there -- I don't remember any sort of training memo or information about that activity at all.

GROSS: (laughs) How to deal with it, yes.

HESTER: So, you know, I think it's strictly left up to the individual flight attendant. Some people would react angrily. Others would be more calm about it. Me, I'm the kind of person who -- you know, if two people are going to the bathroom, I mean, it's -- I'm not a cop, I'm not going to say, "You can't do that." I mean, just -- you know, I mean, as long as nobody's bothering anybody, I guess it's not that big of a deal.

But, you know, you can't -- there's children sitting around. You know, you can't do that on the airplane, it's just not kosher, it's just not something that's supposed to happen.

So I've actually had to, you know, tell a two -- (INAUDIBLE) people to calm down a little bit, and they did, you know, I mean, they were usually kind of embarrassed because they got caught. And I think that's, you know, maybe 90 percent of the cases, if you actually approach somebody, I'm sure they would probably get to the point where they said, "OK, well, you know, let's stop, you know, it's not a good thing."

GROSS: Elliott Neal Hester, thank you very much for talking with us.

HESTER: Thank you for having me, Terry. I really had a good time. Thanks.

GROSS: Elliott Neal Hester is a flight attendant. He writes the travel column "Out of the Blue" for ""


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Purdick (ph). Dorothy Farabee (ph) is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Elliott Neal Hester
High: Elliott Neal Hester, a flight attendant for 14 years, writes the travel column "Out of the Blue" for the online magazine "" He provides a behind-the-scenes look at air travel and why there's so much frustration among airline passengers.
Spec: Aviation Industry; "Out Of The Blue"; Travel

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Problems with Airline Travel
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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