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When a 300 Pound Gorilla is a Flight Attendant Stress Antidote

Published by Rick Seaney on August 19, 2010

A couple of nights a week, flight attendant John Safkow works a second job: taking care of a gorilla. Sometimes, two gorillas.

Yep, these are real, live gorillas. In fact, you've probably heard of one of them: Koko, who shot to fame as the gorilla who uses sign language. According to the Gorilla Foundation (which Koko calls home – it's just outside San Francisco), the 39 year old ape has a vocabulary of 1,000 signs.

Playing with Koko, the 300 Pound Gorilla

Isn't being a full flight attendant a demanding enough job? Yes, but John likes working with gorillas for a couple of reasons; it's fun, for one thing. "We'll play 'chase' or I might sing a song for Koko," he says of his charge. "She 'signs' that she's listening and blows me kisses."

Doing the "Slater Slide"

It's fun and gorillas are the perfect stress antidote – at least for John, who sees plenty of stress and angst during his "day job" (he won't say publicly what airline he works for, but it's known worldwide). John believes the recent incident involving JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater gave the public a window into the world of flight attendants (you'll recall that Slater allegedly cursed out a passenger, grabbed some beer, and exited the plane via the emergency slide).

"I'm not saying that we're all ready to grab two beers and do the Slater Slide, but we all have our stressors and limits," says John, adding "Some handle them better than others".

Passengers Behaving Badly

Why is flying so stressful? Sometimes, it's passengers behaving really badly. And sometimes, say an anonymous American Airlines flight attendant, it's all those airline fees.

"Everyone is testier these days with financial stress, crazy travel schedules, no time to buy food in the airport, but, oh, you can buy a sandwich onboard. That'll be $10, please. In addition, American has reversed their [old policy of] "more legroom throughout coach", making planes cramped and uncomfortable. If you want a pillow or blanket to cushion the hard seats, that'll be another $8. Ka-ching." – Anonymous American Airlines flight attendant

Frustration builds – which may be why we keep hearing more and more stories about passengers getting drunk on planes or flight attendants getting into fights on planes, or exiting planes in unusual ways (here's a story about a passenger exiting a plane via the emergency slide – it's not just for flight attendants!).

Meet "Martha Stewardess"

So what's a flight attendant to do? Well – there's always humor – and flight attendant John Safkow has fun with that too, on his witty blog "Martha Stewardess" (you'll like it). In a recent blog comment, "Martha" suggested JetBlue's Slater and the passenger he allegedly swore at could star in a reality show in which they are forced to live together [Editor's note:Hey, I'd watch!].

Or, we could all try being more civil to each other on planes.

Or, maybe we could each find a gorilla of our own. Says John, "You'd be surprised how soothing and relaxing caring for gorillas can be."

Photo of Koko by Ron Cohn, Copyright �© 2009 The Gorilla Foundation /

More from Rick Seaney:

Flight Attendant Stress: Keeping Cool on the Plane

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