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Flight into metaphor: the last great democratic place on Earth (or in the air)

"We're all in this together" is probably the last thing you think as you settle into your airplane seat, wrestling for armrest room with the sausage-smelling man on one side and the lady sinking her eighth vodka on the other.

Yet, we're all in this together, so try to remember that in this festive season as you find yourself in a metal tube filled with frayed tempers, giant gift bottles of Twix-flavoured Baileys Irish Cream and yesterday's air. Airplanes are the last level playing fields, where the powerful and the famous receive scant special treatment apart from slightly less disgusting food, and no special treatment at all if they misbehave.

The rules for staying out of trouble are so simple that it's astonishing anyone ever flouts them; it's not like learning how to play Go. Do as you're told. Drink like a fish, as long as you stay seated. Don't throw food, or punches. Don't do anything in the bathroom that will cause tiny new passengers to come into the world.

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Break these rules, whether you're a sodden BlackBerry executive or a judo-kicking Naomi Campbell, and it's a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Who's keeping an eye on the rulebook? The benighted flight attendant, that's who. As if they don't already have enough to do.

Remember that France's most celebrated actor was escorted from a flight this summer when a pressing need to urinate caused him to rise from his seat while the plane was preparing for takeoff. When Gérard Depardieu needs to go, he really needs to go, and he vented his spleen, or at least his bladder, into a bottle whose size was apparently not commensurate with his greatness. "I am an elephant," he told the flight attendant who escorted him from the plane. For good measure, he added: "I have a lot of pee." It probably sounds better in French.

At least Mr. Depardieu took it like a man, and not a giant potato-nosed baby: That is, he dressed as the chesty Gaul, Obelix, in horned helmet, braids and comedy pants and made a self-mocking video (it was also a canny bit of promotion, since he's starring in the next instalment of the Asterix and Obelix films).

Such grace was not demonstrated by Alec Baldwin, who was booted off an American Airlines flight this week for refusing to switch off his phone when repeatedly asked to. He was in the middle of delicate negotiations on a Middle East peace deal – no, he wasn't. He was playing the computer game Words With Friends. Mr. Baldwin insists other people were using their phones, too; the airline claims he was rude and abusive.

How maddening it must be to be trapped in a situation where your exalted status doesn't count for beans, and the laws of man don't bend to your will. Mr. Baldwin took his whine to The Huffington Post, where, with ill-disguised sexism, he complained about the flight attendant who insisted he turn off his phone (calling her a "1950s gym teacher") and moaned about how much more pleasant flying was in the days before 9/11.

I'm hoping that Mr. Baldwin will find in his Christmas stocking a copy of Drew Whitelegg's valuable book about flight attendants, Working the Skies, which contains the immortal mantra: "We're here to save your ass, not kiss it." Mr. Whitelegg contends that the current fad for airborne nostalgia actually hinders flight attendants' ability to do their duties, which should involve preserving passengers' bacon, not frying it. "A culture still dominated by the 'nostalgic flight attendant,' seen in films such as View from the Top, undermines flight attendants' attempts to impose themselves as safety professionals so that even passengers often do not take them seriously," he writes. "After all, if they are merely flying waitresses, why listen to them on safety matters?"

In his dozens of interviews with flight attendants, Mr. Whitelegg discovered that their worst problems occurred in first-class cabins, where the passengers, lamenting some mythical bygone day when every stewardess looked like Christina Ricci and the smell of baked Alaska wafted through the cabin, took out their frustrations on the crew. There's a lot of steam coming out of ears, apparently: Mr. Whitelegg estimates there may be as many as 10,000 air-rage incidents a year in the U.S. alone.

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I prefer to think of airplanes as beautiful flying metaphors, where the needs of the collective outweigh the desires of the few. That's clearly not the majority view, however. Maybe the next time he flies, Mr. Baldwin can bring along Working the Skies: It's called a book, it sits on the lap and requires no electricity. And no flight attendant will tell him to turn it off.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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