Sitting on the jump-seat in the back of coach, working a flight from New York to Los Angeles aboard a 767, I turned to Stephanie, my coworker, and sighed. “I have to tell you, I was getting a little nervous there for a minute.”
“I know,” Stephanie laughed, even though she was not laughing an hour ago.
I should have known it was going to be one of those days when I spotted the flight attendant slipping her navy blue pantyhose feet into a cheap pair of white house shoes, the kind you snag from a nice hotel, just to go through security.
“Ma’am,” I said eyeing her Travelpro suitcase, not her funny feet, as I placed my own wheelie bag onto the moving conveyor belt, “Are those three large cobs of corn sticking out of the back of your rollaboard?”
“Yes,” she said matter of fact.
I laughed, attaching my tote-bag to my rolling bag, but she did not laugh back, as she slipped her feet into a pair of black leather heels, placing the house shoes inside the back pocket of her rollaboard next to the cobs of corn, and walked away.
Okay, that’s weird, I remember thinking, as I walked to flight operations. Little did I know, that was just the beginning of weird.
We were midway through the beverage service in coach when it hit me. I had just poured a cup of coffee when I smelled a strange smell. It was the kind of smell you do not want to smell, particularly in flight. Now this wasn’t that smell flight attendants often use coffee packets in the lavatory to disguise. Oh no, this was a burning smell. Maybe even a plastic burning smell. Or was it an electrical burning smell? I couldn’t tell. While I tried to figure it out, I handed a passenger a cup of water, no ice, and looked across the cart at Stephanie who had three cups of orange juice in one hand.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I asked the next passenger, not making eye contact, as I still stood staring at Stephanie, who would not look at me no matter how long I stared at her.
I cleared my throat, but she did not look, so I glanced across the aisle at Ben, another coworker, who had just handed a passenger a breakfast sandwich. Too busy counting a wad of cash, Ben did not notice me either. As for his partner on the other side of the cart, she was bent over a passenger plugging in a set of headphones into the armrest. Just business as usual flying across the country, except for that strange scent in the cabin that only I seemed to smell.
I’ll admit that after having recently attended recurrent training, where flight attendants go to review everything from security procedures to CPR, I was a tad bit sensitive when it came to things that were…well…out of the ordinary, even just slightly out of the ordinary things, which I have to think is a normal reaction for most flight attendants after going through two stressful days of torture at the training facility each year. I mean I’m sure that’s why we go through recurrent training in the first place, so that we don’t become desensitized to all the different things we experience out on the line, so that we don’t become complacent and ignore the things that should not be ignored, no matter how trivial they may seem, or smell, at first. However some of us may have a tendency to become a wee bit paranoid , like me, after being bombarded with all those what-if scenarios, especially the fire fighting scenarios, at training.
As I continued to stare at Stephanie, I popped open a can of cranberry juice. Finally she met my gaze. I opened my eyes wide, cocked my head, and mouthed, Smell that? I could see her nose at work as she sniffed the air. She made a face and nodded in agreement. Together we glanced across the aisle at Ben, who was now looking at us curiously.
What, Ben mouthed at me, while placing a can of apple juice on a passenger’s tray table.
I tapped my nose three times, and then handed a passenger a napkin and a glass of ice. Ben nodded. I gulped. It was getting stronger.
“I’m going to call the cockpit,” I told Stephanie.
On my way to the back of the cabin, a call light rang. I stopped, turned off the orange light, and asked the man with the messy hair and the blue eye mask wrapped around his neck, “Need something?”
“There’s a strange smell in the cabin,” said the man with a British accent, rubbing his blinking eyes.
“Yeah, I smell it, too,” mumbled a woman, his seatmate, who had, until that moment, also been sleeping.
I rang the pilots in the cockpit, along with the flight attendant working in first class, and watched as Ben and Stephanie professionally maintained the beverage service in main cabin. After going over the details involving the smell – the type of smell, the strength of the smell, the location of the smell, the passengers seated near the smell, how long I’d smelled the smell, etc – I asked the purser, “Can you come back here and check it out?”
Two seconds later the purser, a no nonsense kind of woman, a take charge kind of person, the kind of flight attendant you want working with you whenever there’s a problem on-board a flight, came strolling down the aisle. She leaned over Stephanie and whispered, “I smell it. The cockpit wants you to feel the floor to see if it’s hot.”
I gulped. “Okay.”
Now if I hadn’t recently gone to recurrent training just a few months ago, and had not seen the video of the flight attendant who had fought a fire during flight, and the brilliant thing she had done prior to fighting the fire located under the floor boards of the airplane, I may have actually bent down on my hands and knees and touched that nasty carpet, which is something you probably don’t want to do when eyes are focused on you. Not when your main priority is to keep the passengers calm. Instead I slipped off my shoes, just like the flight attendant had done in the training video, and smiled as I walked down the aisle, very slowly, into the back galley where I grabbed a stack of plastic cups. Back to the cart I walked, very slowly, feeling the floor for heat. Of course the woman who had been sleeping next to the British man had seen me slip off my shoes, and was now looking at me exactly the way I imagined I had looked at the flight attendant with the corn cobs sticking out of her bag, like I was weird.
“That’s strange,” I heard her whisper to her seatmate, as I passed her row.
Back at the beverage cart, I slipped my shoes back on, simultaneously grabbing a couple packets of equal and a stir stick, handing them to the passenger I had last served, before asking Stephanie, “Can you pass the milk?”
As Stephanie handed me a small carton of fat free milk, I shook my head no, indicating that the floor was not hot. Thank god.
We clicked the brake and moved the cart three rows back, and while watching the purser communicating to the cockpit via inter-phone, I asked a passenger, “Care for something to drink?”
The purser hung up the phone and walked back to the cart, very slowly. With a puzzled look on her face, she handed Stephanie a stack of napkins and whispered, “I don’t smell it anymore.”
“Me neither,” Stephanie and I quietly said simultaneously.
And just like that the smell was gone (never to return again), the British man and his seatmate had fallen back to sleep, and the beverage service continued as normal. The rest of the flight, I’m happy to report, went without further incident. Thank god.
So the next time you find yourself trapped on a miserable flight, just remember that the flight attendant, that overpaid waitress in the sky who is taking entirely way too long to get to your row, isn’t just there to help you find a place to stow your luggage and serve you the beverage of your choice, even though it may appear to be so, she’s really there for your safety, and while she’s there, always monitoring the cabin at 35,000 feet, she’ll ask you if you’d like something to drink.