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Steven Slater, Road Warrior: JetBlue Mints a Folk Hero

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Move over, Sully Sullenberger, there’s a new folk hero in the skies. OK, maybe not a universally acclaimed hero. And not a “hero” in the sense of, like, saving lives, or stopping a terrorist, or really doing anything traditionally considered “heroic.” Still, Steven Slater—the JetBlue flight attendant who reportedly had an altercation with a passenger who injured him in the head, cursed her out over the PA, then deplaned, with a beer, via the emergency slide—is the talk of the country today. (And, I’m guessing, the talk of late-night TV for a while to come.)

There are a lot of reasons Slater’s exit might have struck a chord: general frustrations with work, the economy, or the rudeness of strangers, or specific irritation with the breakdown of airline civility. But above all, the Slater story is fascinating because it provides an irresistible image of screw-you liberation: the put-upon employee telling off some jerk, kissing off his job over a PA system, then taking off. Grabbing a beer. And going down a slide. A freaking slide! Yabba dabba doo!

Obviously, Slater’s was not the most level-headed course of action. He flew off the handle, freaked out in front of a plane full of passengers and caused inconvenience and expense to others by abusing an emergency exit. I don’t endorse that. Don’t try this at home, kids stay in school, &c.

But it may be the impracticality, the ballsiness, or the craziness of Slater’s gesture that makes it so fascinating. Quitting your job dramatically, after all, would seem to be the last thing you want to do in the middle of an economic downturn. Maybe that’s the appeal. Slater may have had his personal reasons for cracking, but there was a kind of ’70s, mad-as-hell-not-going-to-take-it, Take This Job and Shove It sensibility to his rebellion, and people responded to it: over 11,000 people had joined the Free Steven Slater! page on Facebook by this afternoon.

A panel on CNBC this afternoon made the case—a stretch, maybe, but not unconvincing—that the Slater story resonated with stressed-out American workers generally. As David Leonhardt has written in the New York Times, one of the distinctive marks of this recession is that unemployment has hit a fairly narrow group, but hit them very deeply. In other words, there hasn’t been a lot of churn in the job market; rather, people who have lost their jobs just tend to stay unemployed a long, long time, while people who kept their jobs through the crash have (compared with previous recessions) largely stayed employed.

The flip side is that, if you have one of those jobs, you’re often expected to do more and more to push productivity up, while wages have stagnated—and you need to put up with that if you don’t want to become one of the perma-unemployed. The latest economic news, however, has been that productivity gains have suddenly stalled: in other words, more and more companies may finally have wrung all the work they can out of their exhausted staff.

Now, maybe those workers do not generally get conked on the head by overhead bins. Maybe some of those workers travel for business and have their own gripes with airline employees. (For both sides, the airlines have basically turned travel into trench warfare between customers and service people in the name of margins.) But one way or another, the stress of work and workplace interactions—and the fantasy of telling someone off—seems to be alluring right now. Take a look at today’s other hot Internet meme: the story of a young assistant who publicly and hilariously quit her job while humiliating her sexist boss through e-mail photo attachments. [Its veracity is unconfirmed, and strongly questioned by some—but that hasn’t kept it from being passed around virally by people who want to believe. Update: The debunkers were right, and TheChive.com definitely knows its audience—many of whom, after all, were passing around the link and reading it from their cubicles.]

All of which is to say, I would be stunned if Hollywood is not buzzing with TV pitches and screen treatments for Slater’s story. Maybe there’s a reality show in his future: Take This Job and Shove It! With Steven Slater, in which he helps a different person each week tell off their employers dramatically. Or maybe something nice for Travel Channel: Steven Slater, Road Warrior, in which our host offers flight and hotel tips for the age of aggressive travel. At the very least a special installment of Undercover Boss? Reality TV producers, the sky—or at least the tarmac—is the limit.

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