Galley Gossip: The Gift of Fear (on and off the airplane)

Out of nowhere you feel it – fear. You’re not sure why you feel it, and because it doesn’t make sense, at least not yet, you choose to ignore it. Perhaps you just don’t want to be rude or look stupid in an effort to avoid whatever it is you can’t quite grasp that is scaring you. Well I’m here to tell you there could be a very good reason you’re afraid, and it doesn’t always have to make sense and it’s okay to look stupid or act rude, even if you are a woman. Better safe than sorry, I say.

Two years after I first started flying in 1995, the airline I work for sent out a newsletter with a little blurb about an interesting sounding book called The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker. I bought the book and several years later it’s still one of my favorites. De Becker discusses what it means to be fearful and how that fear is truly a gift. If you trust it. Some people call it a sixth sense. Whatever it is; a shiver down your spine, hair standing up on the back of your neck, a lump at the bottom of your stomach, something has alerted your senses. You shouldn’t ignore it. That fear could very well save your life.

One of the first stories Gavin shares is about a pilot who enters a convenience store and then immediately walks right back out because his sixth sense told him to leave. The pilot had no idea the store was being robbed, but when De Becker asked the pilot why exactly he left, the pilot said he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. De Gavin pressed the pilot for more details, and soon the pilot realized what really triggered his reaction; a man wearing a winter coat in the middle of summer, customers all turning to stare at him when he walked through the door. All these clues came at the pilot so quickly, he couldn’t make sense of why he felt the way he felt, but he trusted his gut and got out there quickly.

So why did the cop who walked into the very same convenience store seconds later not feel the same way the pilot did? Because when the customers in the store spotted the cop, relief swept over them, replacing fear, which may have been why the cop did not pick up on what was going on quickly enough to prevent him from getting shot.

Remember Richard Reid, the shoe bomber? At flight attendant recurrent training we learned there was something about the man that made each flight attendant on his flight take note of him right away. For some reason those flight attendants got an uneasy feeling the minute he walked onto the airplane. But no one said a word to each other. At least not until the ordeal was over. If you feel a little uneasy about a certain situation, tell someone. If someone tells you they feel a little weird about a certain situation, listen. I know I do.

Fear on the airplane: A few years ago a passenger on one of my flights from New York to Los Angeles caught my eye. Constantly he kept getting up to use the bathroom, and once behind the locked lavatory door he stayed there for an unusually long amount of time. When I tried to address him as he passed me by to get to his seat, he ignored me – several times.

“There’s a passenger making me a little nervous,” I told a fellow coworker. We were just about to begin the first beverage service.

“The one wearing a black polo shirt and dark sunglasses sitting in a middle seat near the front of the cabin who keeps getting up to use the lavatory?” my coworker asked, nonchalantly rearranging the napkins, stir sticks, and sugar.

Two hundred passengers aboard our flight that day and my coworker knew exactly who I’d been talking about. Coincidence? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Because right after the passenger wearing the polo shirt returned to his seat, another passenger came running, literally running, down the aisle to the back of the aircraft.

“I’m sitting next to this guy and I can’t explain it, but he’s scaring me!” a young woman cried, literally, she was crying.

I handed her a Kleenex, assuring her I knew exactly who she spoke of and that we, the crew, were not only watching him, but we had already informed the cockpit who had contacted the ground. As soon as the words were out of my mouth another passenger walked into the galley.

Flashing a crew ID, the off duty flight attendant pulled me aside so no one else could hear and whispered, “I just want to let you know that there’s this guy…”

This guy, the one wearing a polo shirt who sat a few rows away from her, had made her nervous. Funny enough, he never did do anything wrong. Yet we continued to keep an eye on him. When we landed in L.A. the aircraft was met by several serious looking men and women dressed in dark suits. An FBI agent pulled me aside and asked a few questions. I told him everything, even though there wasn’t much to tell. Eventually the passenger in question was let go. But how strange is it that the one and only passenger we all feared had been issued a passport two days prior, had purchased a one way ticket with cash, and had a connecting flight to Florida where he said he was going to school?

Coincidence? You decide.

On a layover: Once at a layover hotel in a city I no longer remember, I signed in and collected my room key from the front desk in the hotel lobby. Because all the other flight attendants had gone up to their rooms to make the most of our short, nine hour, layover, I stood all alone in my uniform waiting for the elevator. Finally the doors opened wide and I stepped inside. A well dressed man holding a garment bag stood leaning against the mirrored wall. I smiled, and when I went to push the button, I noticed there were no other floors illuminated. Just mine. Immediately I felt a little weary.

When the elevator stopped at my floor, I stepped out, rolling my Travelpro bag behind me. So did the man with the garment bag. I took a left and quickly walked down the hallway. So did the man with the garment bag. My heart began to race. Because I’d read De Gavin’s book, and because I trusted my fear, I passed my room, continuing on down the short hallway to the big red sign that read Exit. The man continued to follow me. Once I reached the fire escape, I circled around and quickly passed the man, heading back to the elevator and down to the lobby to report the incident. Of course I got a new room. Sure, the man with garment bag could have been an innocent guy, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.

Neither should you.

If you haven’t read The Gift of Fear, you really should. It’s an amazing book and I’ve recommended it to more passengers and flight attendants, particularly women, than any other book. What you read may one day save your life.