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Shawn Vestal: A more civilized era of flight

Jim Bickel holds a 1972 photo of himself when he worked as a flight attendant. The retired local radio personality reflects on a time when air travel didn’t provoke people to flee the plane via emergency slide.  (Christopher Anderson)
Jim Bickel holds a 1972 photo of himself when he worked as a flight attendant. The retired local radio personality reflects on a time when air travel didn’t provoke people to flee the plane via emergency slide. (Christopher Anderson)

Back when Jim Bickel helped break the gender barrier among flight attendants, the skies were a good bit friendlier.

At least that’s how he remembers it. Airline passengers chose among a variety of meals. Liquor carts trawled the aisles. Passengers were a lot more likely to dress up – or at least less likely to wear sweatpants – and 100 percent more likely to light up.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Bickel, who was the first man hired by TWA as a flight attendant in 1972. “It was a great job. It was fun.”

Sure, there were problems. Hijackings were a constant source of concern, for one thing. Bickel, who flew out of New York for a couple of years, said he once had Wilt Chamberlain tossed off a flight for making a joke about a bomb. But to hear him tell it, it was nothing like the stew of stress that provoked the cultural hero of the moment, Steven Slater. Slater walked off the job as a flight attendant after unleashing a profanity-laced tirade on the PA system, deploying the emergency chute, grabbing two beers and sliding off to fame and adoration.

But about that hero business? Bickel – a longtime talk-show host in Spokane who watched talk radio slide into the partisan, vitriolic soup – isn’t persuaded.

“This guy popped a slide,” he said. “I was talking to a pilot today and that’s a $35,000 hit. … These people (on the plane) are going to be stressed out. If you don’t want to go to work and be ready for that, then find another job.”

Then again, at 61, Bickel admits he’s old school. He was decrying the loss of civility back in the 1990s, in the midst of his on-again, off-again decade as a call-in radio host for KXLY-AM. He once quit, temporarily, after a caller falsely claimed to be pregnant with his child.

Here’s what he said about that back in the day: “(H)ow much personal attack do I want to take? It’s gotten to the point where it’s out of control.”

Well, nothing makes yesterday seem tame like today. The interwebs are ablaze with the cretinous and the rude. The rant has been elevated to its own genre – complete with indiscriminate capitalizations and strings of exclamation points and the reek of unearned self-satisfaction. Not everything online is that way, by any means. But if you look at the comments that flow over the online transom, it’s clear that jerks have found their natural habitat.

One example: Earlier this week, a man died downtown after running a red light while riding his bike.

Here’s what someone saw fit to share in the comment thread of a local TV website’s story: “AND ANOTHER bike rider DIES that believed he was ABOVE the law. GOOD RIDDANCE.”

Here’s another one, from a different station’s website on the same story: “It’s about time they made a point of saying that some of the cyclists in this town are braindead zombies. I am a cyclist but I at least follow the rules of the road. Just 2 days ago I saw 2 douchebags zip up the wrong way down Main by cutting across 3 lanes heading North on Washington. I guess some people just have it coming to them.”

You can feel these writers surging with malicious joy. The thrill of “telling it like it is.”

They ought to be ashamed of themselves, but you get the sense they’re proud.

I’m not trying to draw too precise a parallel between that and Steven Slater. It’s a lot harder to dislike a good version of “Take This Job and Shove It.” But the worship that’s been heaped on him – and I say this as someone who kind of loves what he did – tells us more about us than it does about him.

A lot of us are carrying around a pent-up desire to strafe a hillside with f-bombs. To incinerate a bridge. To wallow in a rant. Any rant. If the tables were turned – if a fed-up airline passenger unloaded on a flight attendant with some vigor and style, then popped a chute – we’d be seeing just as many YouTube ballads in that person’s honor.

Everyone wants to tell everyone else to take this (job, bag of pretzels, soggy pizza, slow Internet connection, etc.) and shove it.

There’s no one left to do any shoving.

Bickel works these days as a part-time barista at the DoubleTree hotel downtown. After a good run on the radio here, he had a stroke in 2001 that brought his career to an end. If you talked to him, you might not notice anything amiss, but he says he’s not as quick as he was.

“I’m like a dial-up modem in a 4-gig world,” he said. “I might think, ‘ankle,’ but I’ll say, ‘wrist.’ ”

He says he often finds himself talking about his TWA days with the various flight crews that stay in the hotel and come by for coffee. He can share his stories – he’s got good ones, like the time Dick Clark told him he ought to go into radio. Or recall the assumptions that passengers sometimes made about the orientation or availability of flight attendants.

“I got pinched – by men and women,” he said.

Lately, Steven Slater has been the main topic of conversation. Bickel asks the crews what they think of what Slater did.

“Some are appalled,” he said. “Some say, ‘Way to go,’ believe it or not.”

Oh, I believe it.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or