Monday, June 27, 2011

The Not So Post Racial Skies

I spent 14 years in the airline industry with CAL, had a lot of fun while I was working in it and miss it at times.

Let me stop lying.  I miss it a lot and especially the Golden Handcuffs.  But one of the things that is impossible for a person of color not to notice is that it is a predominately vanilla flavored world.  

Race and class is dominant in air travel.   From the predominant ethnicity of the folks working in it to the people traveling be it in first class or coach, a person of color can never forget for a moment that you are in just like society, a white dominated world.

There were times early in my career and during bids that sometimes I was the lone African American in my gate zones.  Even though I got along with many of my non-Black coworkers and even went out after work with them at times, there were just times in order to converse with other African Americans, I'd go to the flight attendant crew lounge on my breaks and hang out with them.

Because of the dominance of whiteness in that industry, culture clashes are bound to come up.  Some of the stuff that happens when those culture clashes occur can be funny, but as Deshon Marman and many Muslims discovered in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and the recent incident with a Southwest Airlines pilot making anti-gay, misogynistic and fatphobic comments during a rant over a stuck microphone that tied up an air traffic control radio frequency for several minutes, some of them aren't.

During my time in the industry and working at IAH I was one of the few African descended gate supervisors.  I've found myself having to call out fellow employees and passengers alike for bigoted and sometimes borderline racist statements made in breakrooms, at my gates and in various places in the airport in general.  I've had to read the riot act to passengers who uttered derogatory racist slurs at POC pilots, flight attendants, gate and ticket counter agents, security checkpoint personnel (in the pre-TSA days), cart drivers, and me personally before and after I transitioned.

I've seethed and bit my tongue as white passengers who didn't like a decision I made at the gate not in their favor would go 'supervisor shopping' for a white one who would overturn what I'd just done, then rub it in my face afterward, or call me 'rude', 'arrogant' or both if I or any POC employee dared speak back to them or called them on their BS. . 

The disrespect wasn't limited to POC airline employees and support personnel.  It extended at times to POC passengers as well   I found it irritating that I was expected to give deferential treatment to white celebrities and politicos but my own and other POC's were getting disrespected.  

There was a LAX flight I was working one night at my gate in which the airplane got swapped out to a widebody A300 one from a narrowbody.  That meant I had extra first class seats to fill and got to upgrade some frequent flyers in the process.   

One of the frequent flyers I upgraded was comedian Chris Thomas, who was the host of the BET show Rap City at the time.  He was dressed in black slacks, a nice white shirt with a black tie, and a bomber jacket with a large BET logo on the back.. Thought there would be no problem with his upgrade after sending two white platinum elite members wearing jeans and t-shirts into First Class and not hearing a peep from the middle aged white flight attendant working first class.

After sending him down to the plane we commenced with boarding the flight.  I note the line is backing up the jetway and before the WTF thought could pass through my mind, I see standing at my podium the white FC flight attendant and Chris Thomas.

She is disrespectfully questioning whether he was a seated FC passenger, and I testily told her he was Chris Thomas of Black Entertainment Television, and he most definitely had a FC seating assignment.

Since I had five seats left to fill I made sure I upgraded the next five Black, Latino/a and Asian frequent flyers as a frack you to the bigoted FA.  She got the message because the next week when I was working the same flight she made sure she trip traded off that flight for the rest of the month which the rest of the crew thanked me for since she was a rhymes with witch to them.

One of the more humorous ones was the Saturday I was the acting supervisor over IAH gates 34-42.  I was advised about a situation in which a frequent flyer had been upgraded by Reservations to first class, but before the res agent could do so for his wife someone purchased the last available first class seat.  Reservations had already called me in my zone office and advised me what was up and I warned the two African American gate agents and the CSR scheduled to work that flight what was transpiring as well so they wouldn't be ambushed by it.   

The ticket counter advised me we'd already gotten one first class passenger to agree to downgrade to coach in case the first class cabin went into an oversale situation, but we had to wait until the federal cutoff time of 20 minutes before departure to do so.  As they arrived at the gate he was already standing by the podium drumming his fingers on it as my agents were getting organized to start  checking in for the flight.       

The wife was on priority first class standby, but he was demanding she be upgraded immediately.  When the agents politely explained the situation, he began 'supervisor shopping' and demanded to see the CSR, who was also African American.

Palmer, their CSR told him the same story my two gate agents patiently tried to, so he demanded to see his  supervisor, who was moi.   I arrive at the gate and tell him the same thing my agents and CSR had, so he demanded to see my supervisor, the airport duty manager.   Karen just happened to be walking into the area to check on our 6 PM bank of flights and she was survey says, also African American.

At that point after talking to Karen, we could see him sigh as if he was saying "Isn't there anyone at this airline that's not Black?" and go sit in his lobby area seat next to his wife.   Ten minutes later we hit the cutoff point, dumped the last first class held seat and upgraded the wife.  Problem solved and we gave the would be volunteer extra frequent flier miles as a thank you gesture  .

After the flight boarded and pushed off the gate we clustered at the gate podium counter for a moment and found some humor out of the just concluded situation before I headed off with Karen to check the last departures of that flight bank and see if there were any last minute issues.
These incidents I'm discussing happened in the 90's-early 2k's and I doubt that anything has changed since then.  Airline travel is probably more vanilla centric since I left the industry and we've had some air carrier mergers.  Because of the industry contraction and skyrocketing jet fuel prices, ticket prices have risen as a consequence, which constricts the number of POC flyers you see on flights.         

Hearing about what happened to Deshon Marman just made me realize that even in this so called post racial period, race still matters, even in the friendly skies.

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