Coffee, tea, or  … chokehold? If you’re startled at the combination, join the club. In the past twelve months, the stereotype of the flight attendant profession has morphed from frivolous party pal into anti-terrorist commando. Yet outwardly, I still step into the same blue suit and 2-1/2-inch heeled regulation navy blue pumps. 


While I and my colleagues never lived quite as large as the mini-liquor swigging Suzis and Stans of film fame, our job now mandates we combine SWAT tactics with the customer service staples and FAA-required safety training that previously comprised the bulk of our career’s professional requirements. We’ve always known that we were safety professionals first, but the public’s perception of us shifted from coffee server to terrorist profiler in the blink of an eye.


          Flight attendants have always lived in a parallel universe, handing out pillows and blankets one minute while monitoring safety-procedure compliance and preparing emergency exits for use — just in case — the next.


But the job now includes assessing whether the passenger who has leaped from his seat as the plane starts its takeoff is completely void of mental faculties, or a terrorist intent on killing someone. And when, after much commotion, frantic cockpit calls, and a confrontation with the poor, clueless soul who was only looking for the bathroom at a very inopportune moment, we determine that terrorism isn’t on the agenda for today, I am left to limp into the bathroom, lock myself in and collapse into a heap while attempting to calm my racing adrenaline and cancel my flight-or-fight reaction so that I can now go serve soft drinks. Somehow, the thought of running out of the steak entrée seems pretty inconsequential at moments such as that.


          Reacting to an emergency situation has always been a job requirement. Luckily, those situations used to be pretty few and far between. You didn’t spend much of your working day focused on what if? 


Now, a levelheaded response to threat is a skill no longer relegated to the once-in-a-lifetime status of airplane emergencies or runway evacuations. On a routine basis, I am called upon to decide if members of the traveling public who mistakenly try to enter the cockpit when looking for the first-class bathroom are simply unaware of passenger procedures and protocol, or are criminals with destructive intentions.


As much as I long to go back to the days before, when we took these quirks of the customer service business in stride, I know the reality is that those days are gone forever.


Before, I would chalk these flying idiosyncrasies up to human nature and file them away for the next cocktail party anecdote.


Now I’ve had to adjust to what might be concealed beneath a hanging overcoat, or serving pre-departure while staring intently into each passenger’s eyes for signs of menace, perform unofficial duties as a human extension of the Homeland Security department. During passenger boarding, I sometimes find myself picturing whether or not the maneuver taught in the Chuck Norris self-defense training course I recently completed is really going to drop the 6-foot-2-inch, backpack-wielding passenger who is sweating profusely and refusing to take his assigned seat.


          Now don’t mistake me for a sweet, honey-tongued service-with-a-smile Stepford stew. I’ve been walking that narrow, carpeted aisle long enough that nice was replaced by polite and efficient some time ago, and not-so-polite more times than I’d care to admit. 


But, all the same, as Eddie Chiles used to say, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” I’ve been robbed of my peace of mind while at work and the comfort that 17-plus years of experience provided me. I no longer view the passengers I am there to care for with the same spirit of camaraderie. In-flight safety has taken on a whole new dimension.


Woe to the fledging shoe bomber or even the mentally deranged panic-attack-suffering, cockpit-storming lunatic who boards one of my flights. I’ve got a plastic knife and I’m not afraid to use it, so don’t mistake this primly suited, sensible-shoe-wearing female for a pushover. 


          The minute I see real, verifiable trouble headed down the aisle, I’m opening the biggest can of payback. People ask me all the time if I’m afraid to fly now, and my answer is always the same: I’m afraid not to. Because, as disconcerting as it might be to the casual observer, I’ve always believed in my ability to sling hash and slay the bad guys at the same time.


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