Everyone on the plane was shocked. He quickly gathered his belongings, emptied the contents of a beverage cart liquor drawer into his bag, and launched the evacuation slide onto the tarmac. He hopped down the slide and for a few brief moments, Steven Slater was free. Little did he know in that moment that his story would be making national headlines. Slater simply wanted to make a point to his company that he had felt unsupported. He could have just walked off the plane and turned in his crew badge, but he knew that would leave little to no impact on airline culture – he had to do more. His mother had fallen ill, his airline didn’t seem to be particularly supportive, and passengers had pushed one too many buttons. All of this plus an earlier altercation with a passenger had brought him to his breaking point. Steven Slater had had enough. He needed to be heard.
In his new memoir, Wingwalking, Steven Slater recounts the events of that day as well as his life before and after his career in the airline industry. I had the opportunity to meet with Steven recently to talk about his new book. They often say that once aviation gets in your blood, it stays there – and being a flight attendant is no exception. When I met Steven at a coffee shop in San Diego, he was friendly, polite, and smiling – in true flight attendant fashion. Slater seemed confident and ready for the next chapter of his life. We sat down and had a candid conversation about his career as a flight attendant, his life on the ground, and what occurred on that fateful day.
Two Guys On A Plane: What made you decide to write a book about these events and why now? What was the writing process like for you? Steven S:I actually started writing it in a motel room; it was incredibly painful and yet liberating. I didn’t intend to publish. It started as a journal. It was cathartic and freeing to write. It helped me put things into perspective and then it took on a life of its own. My writing was raw and dark. There were times I had to step away, but it brought me a release I hadn’t felt before. Many flight attendants had come to me and said that I should share my story and that it could help people who also faced similar mental health and substance abuse issues. I initially feared it would come across in poor taste, especially given some of my experiences, but I hadn’t thought of being able to help people with my stories before – so I decided to take a risk.
TG: In your book you discuss a variety of different issues – some personal, some external – what would you say was the biggest factor in pushing you to your breaking point on the day of your notorious incident at JetBlue? SS: I call it a perfect storm. My mother was ill, and I was dealing with bipolar and substance abuse issues. I was on reserve at the time and I didn’t have the time to schedule the self-care that I needed. I wasn’t able to make AA meetings. It was a perfect storm of bipolar mania, precipitated by alcohol, and rage from situations that JetBlue had caused me – and then that woman pushed me to the edge.
TG: I noticed after your JetBlue incident that you appeared in multiple major media interviews. A lot of people have accused you of deploying the slide to seek attention, so what made you decide to speak out and appear in various media outlets? SS: At the time of the incident, my son was 17. The media was releasing information about my HIV status, my personal life, and the story was being spun in a way that was only getting more outrageous over time. I had to speak up and defend myself. There was so much misinformation out there and I needed to take ownership of my story.
TG: How did you feel immediately after the incident? Did you feel any remorse? SS:Over time, I’ve learned to advocate for myself. Looking back, I wish I’d advocated for myself better at the time to have had a better income. I didn’t know how to ask for help and I backed myself in a corner. Everything I’ve gone through has made me who I am. I’ve become a much stronger and more compassionate person, but it came at a high price.
TG: Every so often, you will see a headline in the news about a flight attendant who lashes out. Do you pay special attention to those stories, and do these stories spark anything within you? SS: At the time of the incident, I was living on the East Coast and my mother was in California. I wanted to move back to California, but I wasn’t getting the support I needed from JetBlue. I wasn’t being treated like a human. I was just a number to them and that affected me deeply. My first concern when I hear these stories is for the flight attendant. Having been in their shoes, I wonder – what is this person going through, what is going to happen to them next, and are they able to get any support? Sometimes I will even reach out to them to offer support.
TG: Do you ever miss flying? SS:I miss the dining, the shopping, the whole experience. I miss meeting new people and what flying used to be. I’m not so much interested in what the job has become. Missed what flying was, but not so much interested in what it became. I miss the camaraderie. The support from the flight attendant family has been phenomenal both after the incident and throughout the release of my book. If I didn’t have the support of the flight attendant’s around me, I don’t know what I would do. They’ve paid my rent, provided me with clothing, and even bought me food, emotional support. I’m very grateful.
TG: Do you think there would have been a different outcome had your airline offered more support to you along the way? What do you think airlines can do to prevent things like this from happening again? SS: Airlines need to look at their crew members as human beings and not just numbers. If someone had stopped to check in with me, we might have had a different outcome. It’s not to say I put all the blame on them. I take responsibility for my actions but wonder if I had more support along the way, if it might’ve been different. I might have had more time to take care of myself and not get to that point. I think airlines need to be more compassionate and humane. Substance abuse in the airline industry is rampant. When I worked for Delta, they had said it was fine initially, and then fired me after I went to rehab. Airlines need to pay more attention and offer more support after incidents happen in flight attendants’ lives both on and off the aircraft. If they failed me, then they have definitely failed other crew members, too.
TG: Now that the book has been released, what do you hope people take away after reading your story? SS:I hope that people get a little bit more of a human view of who I actually am. I’m not a two-dimensional media created caricature and there is an actual person behind the headlines. Most of all, I want to give encouragement to people that suffer. I hope it will be useful for people who experience bipolar and substance abuse. I hope that it shows folks that there is hope for life with those conditions. It is possible to transcend.
TG: So what’s the next chapter for you? SS:I’m still figuring that out. I’m settling into San Diego, I’m maintaining my sobriety, and I’m focusing on my health. I’m currently looking into education opportunities and the prospect of becoming a substance abuse counselor. I want to take the experiences that I have and use that to give back. It’s time for a reinvention. Steven 2.0 is coming.”
As aviation professionals, we live each day surrounded by people and yet often feel so alone. The combination of being away from family and friends, working with strangers, and spending nights alone in foreign cities can certainly take a toll. It’s important to find healthy ways to cope but it can be challenging. In today’s culture, there is such a stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse issues. The truth is, it’s okay to not be okay. Steven Slater’s story is a powerful one that we can all identify with, whether you’re a flight attendant or not. Each and every one of us faces a great deal of pressure on a day-to-day basis from our jobs, our families, and our communities. Sometimes a helping hand may be all that we need to make a difference in our own lives. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to your company or union employee assistance program, or check out some of the resources we’ve listed below.
A special thank you to Steven Slater for taking the time to chat with Two Guys On A Plane and for being so open and candid about his story. If you haven’t already, check out his new book, Wingwalking, a compelling memoir about addiction, mental illness, and his life in aviation. Available now at Barnes & Noble and Amazon!
RESOURCES FOR FLIGHT ATTENDANTS
FADAP | Flight Attendant Drug & Alcohol Program
FADAP is a substance-abuse prevention program, created and promoted for and by the flight attendant profession and funded by the FAA.
RESOURCES FOR EVERYONE
NAMI | National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine
The NAMI HelpLine is a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals and support to people living with a mental health conditions, their family members and caregivers, mental health providers and the public.
SAMHSA | Substance Abuse and Mental Health Helpline
The SAMHSA Helpline is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can also order free publications and other information.
Do you know of a resource not seen here? Contact Us and we’ll add it to our list!