The Terrorist Within

Strong winds shake the plane and rain sheets off the wings and streaks down the small windows as we sit on the runway waiting to take off. The 737 engines ramp to a high pitch roar. My five year old daughter sitting next to me suddenly grabs my hand as our plane accelerates, faster and faster down the runway, throwing us back in our seats.

The plane rocks with the storms powerful crosswinds as it lifts from the ground. My daughter stares at me wide-eyed and her face drains of color. Two seconds in the air and the plane drops ten feet. A quick collective gasp ripples through the cabin. My daughter is now china white and statue still.

I squeeze her hand in both of mine and tell her everything is fine and try to believe it. The plane pitches and tosses as it climbs through the clouds. Moments feel like hours as my mind plays out crash scenarios, and quiets only after the captain comes on announcing we’ve reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet with the promise of a smoother flight ahead.

Sunlight blazes through the windows. Above the clouds in the boundless blue our plane steadies. The collective sigh is almost audible.

Calm warms me just as my daughter announces she’s going to be sick, leans forward and throws up. Rancid chunks of egg and pancake from the morning’s breakfast soak her shirt. I stroke her head and back with one hand while frantically searching for a barf bag in the mesh pouch on the back of the seat in front of me. Two Sky Magazines and an Emergency Procedures brochure, but that’s it.

My daughter cries, ashamed, and tries to hold back throwing up more but I encourage her to let it out, though I’m helpless to contain it. Bile covered clumps drip from the armrest, her lap, and her seat to the floor. My husband sits across the isle and I ask him to go get a stewardess and a bag of some sort. He unbuckles his seatbelt and makes his way down the narrow isle to the attendants collecting snacks and drinks onto a metal serving cart.

Moments later my husband is back with five sheets of paper towel. No bag of any kind, and no stewardess. Apparently when he alerted them of our situation they told him he could find paper towels in the bathrooms.

I unbuckle my seatbelt and stand, take the sheets and start cleaning the mess. Five small squares of thin brown paper isn’t going to do it, so I ask my husband to go get more, and again request he summon assistance. He comes back with another handful of paper towels. Alone.

My ire rises. I leave my husband the task of caring for and cleaning up our daughter. The plane rides level and smooth as I make my way down the isle toward the back of the plane where a steward and stewardess on either side of the metal cart are passing out snacks. I inform them of my situation and ask for their help, or at least a bag of some sort. Both curtly assure me they’ll get to me when they can and tell me to return to my seat, as ‘federal law’ says passengers can not be standing when the fasten seatbelt sign is still on. As I turn back up the isle to go back to my seat a little bell rings and the seatbelt sign goes off.

It takes quite some time to strip and clean my daughter. I dress her in the only shirt I have available- the one I’m wearing. I feel cold (and naked) with only my sheer camisole. I clean the seat, the armrest, and am on my knees for another 10 minutes cleaning the smelly mess off the floor. My ire grows to anger when the cart stops at our row and the stewardess asks me if I want chips or cheese and crackers. I want to spit at her. Again I ask her for a bag and indicate the pile of soaked paper towels I’ve collected on the floor. She pulls a small plastic bag from a cabinet in the metal cart and hands it to me without comment. I glare at her as she moves on.

My husband fills the bag with the messy towels to capacity. Appeals for additional bags are ignored and eventually I go to the kitchenette and get them myself. The stewardess refuses to dispose of our waste and tells me where to throw it away myself. I have to get up to ask for water, for some crackers to settle my daughter’s stomach, for blankets and then I’m told to search the overhead compartments to see if there are any left. At no point during the six and a half hour flight does anyone respond to our request for assistance light, nor inquire as to my daughter’s welfare though I’d reported her ill.

The plane finally lands and we all shuffle out. The crew stands by the curved doorway with smiles and standard quips. The captain is young, good-looking, smiles broadly at me and nods. Three stewardesses and the steward stand together. They smile at me, then down at my daughter who stumbles along in front of me tripping on my long sleeve shirt that fits her like an oversized nightgown. Both women thank us for flying with them, then their eyes drift to my husband behind me and their smiles remain as they repeat the phrase to him.

I manage to refrain from flipping them off as I hustle my child off the plane.

I’m halfway up the collapsible corridor with my family when I ask my husband to wait for me with our daughter at the top of the gangway. Before they can question me I turn away and head back toward the plane. There are just a few passengers still exiting and I make my way around them until I’m standing in front of the cabin crew.

I tell them my name, that I was on their flight, and that my daughter threw up shortly after take-off. Then I ask why, after repeated requests, they did not offer any assistance. They look at each other, then at me, and then the captain speaks. If I have a complaint, he instructs, I should write a letter to American Airlines.

I just want an answer to my question, I insist.

His eyes narrow, his handsome smile evaporates. He tells me under the Homeland Security Act if I don’t exit the aircraft immediately he’s going to call airport security. I stare at him. He’s serious. I’m too scared to laugh. I glare at the attendants one last time, shake my head and leave the plane.

My recent flight experience is typical of late. I hear complaint on complaint about the growing lack of service, and often the down right rudeness of most major airlines these day. Consumer advocacy groups are forming against them. Even if these groups manage to push through legislation defining acceptable conduct for airlines to adhere to, the problem, systemic to our society today, runs deeper than that.

We can’t legislate people to care.

Recognizing and responding to each others needs is a personal choice. It is also a global imperative for humanity’s survival.

Extremists from the outside are not all we should fear.

Indifference is the terrorist within.


Unknown said...

I'm so sorry your daughter became ill. I hope she's doing better.

Take the time to forward a link to this post to the President at American Airlines and the person in charge of customer service. You can get directory information usually through Google or even Yahoo Finance - American is a public company. Also include the details of your flight (day, time flt# and airports involved).
If you're on Twitter or Facebook, put a link to this post on both of those as well as any other social media site you use. Let the executives at the airline know that you'll be doing that.
Make's the only way to get satisfaction.


LM said...

Unhappy, angry people find it difficult to respond to others with compassion. If AA is not treating (notice I did NOT say "not training") not TREATING its people right or they perceive they are not respected and appreciated themselves, they will simply pass it along, no matter how much corporate training they are given.

Rebekah Radisch said...

The pathway between rows of seats is an "aisle" not "isle."

The persons charged with assisting passengers are now known as "flight attendants." The terms stewards and stewardesses are no longer used.

You didn't mention attempting to press the button for flight attendant service.

You didn't mention searching the other back of chair pockets for barf bags, or requesting assistance from neighboring passengers.

Anyway, it's probably best that travelers utilize their scouting motto: be prepared.

Perhaps regardless of air carrier, your future trips should include some basics in each family member's carry on: plastic zip bags, some wipes, a small package of soda crackers, and, say, a lightweight wicking shirt.

Also, perhaps your pre-flight meals should be on the light side.

All that said, the idea of vomit is enough to make some persons sick (kind of a mass hysteria reaction). The last thing the flight attendants would want to deal with is a plane load of barfing passengers.

So I think I would've pushed the call for service button, then if service didn't show relatively soon, I would've stood up and loudly addressed the neighbors (hopefully in earshot of the flight attendants), "Does anyone have a barf bag in your seat pocket? My 5-year-old's sick and spewing vomit everywhere!"

I expect that might've gotten some action.

It sounds as if your assertiveness was too little, too late.

Unknown said...

I completely agree with you about American. My wife who has a gastrointestinal disorder but is otherwise healthy was flying on AA between DFW and Fresno several months ago when she become sick. She was sitting in the very front of the coach area. It was an MD80 and there were no vomit bags for her to throw up in. Instead of running all the way to the back of the plane to throw up, she went to the first class restroom. A flight attendant grabbed her arm and told her she couldn't use the first class restroom. She asked for a vomit bag and the attendant wouldn't give her one. She threw up in a tiny little sack that one of her fellow passengers gave her. The flight attendants didn't even offer her water or something to wash out her mouth with. The rest of the flight she had to run down the entire isle to get to the rear restroom. It was a terrible experience for her, just like your daughter and the AA staff just didn't care.

Unknown said...

I find this story really upsetting. I was just about to book a flight on American and would reconsider if I had a real choice. Besides no other carrier going nonstop to my destination, I am hearing these kinds of horror stories about all the airlines. I am a retired physician and I am also hearing similar stories about non-caring doctors and nurses behaving badly towards patients. It seems that as a society we have are losing our collective sense of empathy. A very sad state of affairs.

Pak Ada said...

I fly AA all the time with my 3-year old, and I find them to be consistently helpful and caring. I'm sorry you had such a traumatic experience, but I find some of it hard to believe. No one helped while a little kid was getting sick? We usually have half the people in a three seat area willing to help us, when we ask, with the caveat that he's never barfed. Maybe that's the bugaboo.

Unknown said...

I used to fly a lot - at least 2 flights a week for several years. One the domestic airlines where I live seats are not usually reserved, and I remember once not feeling well so I boarded early and sat with the airline sick bag ready in my hand and everyone who tried to sit next to me, saw it and immediately got up and moved to another seat. People it seems cannot bear to be around other people's vomit (except perhaps nurses). You, your daughter and your husband all have my utmost sympathy.

Ronni Gaun said...

American Airlines charged my mother and stepfather $7,000 one-way to return from Italy to New York City.

The emergency to get home quickly was due to my sister and her family being struck by a drunk driver.

My 37 year old sister, Wendy, died instantly. Her daughter, Haley, just 10 years old lived for 20 days. My brother in law spent 6 weeks in a come while my 8 year old nephew wondered whether he would be the ONLY survivor.

American Airlines contributed to his anguish by refusing to give my parents a reasonable rate. What if they didn't HAVE $7000!!!???

Air France did reimburse some of that as they ended up doing some legs of the frantic trip home.

American Airlines sucks.

Unknown said...

Airline travel is horrible, period. We drive almost everywhere.
One tip: When we were kids, my mother carried an airline barf bag in her purse all the time. My dad traveled for business and was under instructions to be sure to bring them home. (Pre-Ziploc bag era!) Those bags came in mighty handy, and after she died three years ago, guess what I found in her purse. Faded but still serviceable!

J. Cafesin said...

It was not my intention to indict American Airlines. The terrorist within I'm referring to is Indifference. And it's everywhere, in most all of us to a lesser or greater degree. It's people with health insurance that don't care about the people without. It's the answering systems most corporations choose that kills our time running through prompts to 'better serve us.' It's people who choose to drive gas guzzling cars without caring what it's doing to the environment, or our political agendas.

Decades ago, in one of many documentaries after the second world war about those who participated in it, reporters interviewed Nazi war criminals to German personnel. A German soldier become East German civilian told of what he did during his time in the Third Reich with quiet indignation.

"I just drove the trains."

Indifference is not new, but almost always if not destructive, counterproductive. It sets up contention instead of communication.

Claris Parnell said...

Thirteen years ago, I flew Delta with a one-year old on a 10-hour overseas flight. Seated next to us was a 70+ woman taking her first overseas flight. I needed a little extra help from the flight attendant (needed warm water to mix infant formula) and you'd think, from her reaction, that I was asking for the moon. When I needed help again, she just ignored my call button. Not long into the flight, the woman next to me upchucked in her purse! (I don't know if she knew that airlines provide sick bags. But these days, they're often missing from the seat pocket anyway.) I helped her best as I could, while juggling the baby, and hit the call button. Of course it was ignored. When the same flight attendant happened to stop near my row to chit chat with some other passengers, I got her attention, looked her in the eye, pointed to the woman next to me, and said bluntly, "She's sick." Finally, I got some attention.

You never know what kind of flight attendant or crew you're going to get. In your case, your problem was obviously more important than getting the drink cart started. It's shocking that common sense seems to have gone completely out the window. If nothing else, it was in the crew's best interest to help with the mess to alleviate the stench for everyone and to unblock the aisle as quickly as possible. (Not to mention your family's comfort, of course!)