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Behind the Headlines: What Your Flight Attendant Really Thinks of You

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In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about. You'll never read the news in the same way again.

The headline that got our attention: "Is it really the 'friendly skies?'"

We travel an average of 300 days per year. On every flight, function trumps style.

At the airport terminal, we are not the ones with Asprey English saddle leather luggage, Tom Ford aviators, or straw hats handmade in Italy. You know who we're talking about -- the guys who look effortlessly chic and vaguely European, like they've just hopped off a boat on the Riviera but have somehow transcended fatigue and the need for practical footwear.

No. We're the guys slinging rucksacks over torn t-shirts and cargo pants, paired with sneakers caked in dirt from Kenyan grasslands or Ecuadorian mountains. We're bleary-eyed. We're dumbfounded at the effort exuded by others: isn't the standard-issue travel uniform the "I give up" look?

No one cares what we wear aboard airplanes.

Or so we thought. Until Fox News online posted Flight attendant confessions. The news site received anonymous tips, compiled by airfarewatchdog.com founder George Hobica.

It surprised us to learn that the men and women who work the friendly skies are sizing us up so superficially beneath their neck scarves. One flight attendant admitted to treating the well-dressed customers differently, reasoning that those with the Visa black cards were keeping the airlines in business. That's hardly the case. Between the two of us, we've circled the globe about 200 times. We each have frequent flyer miles in the seven figures.

Recently, Craig was watching an in-flight movie in which the uber-stylish Ryan Gosling looked at Steve Carell's sad-sack mom jeans, golf shirt and dirty running shoes and declared: "Are you in a fraternity? Are you the billionaire owner of Apple computers? Oh, no? In that case you have no right to wear New Balance sneakers. Ever."

Craig looked at his feet. Whoops.

If Ryan Gosling was denouncing Craig's shoe choice as part of the on-board entertainment, then surely the flight attendants noticed, too.

In Craig's defence, he used to try harder. Once a passenger leaned over and advised: "If you're going to borrow your father's jacket, remember to remove the Order of Canada pin." Both the jacket and the pin were his.

The recent "confessions" headline made Craig realize that guy wearing a sports coat sitting one row down might get better service for his panache.

Air travel is rife with opportunities for classism. Not just because flying is itself a luxury (and because there are actual class designations), but because it affords travelers a strange combination of mystery and vulnerability -- where are they going? What artifacts from their life have they brought with them? What kind of shoes are they removing for Homeland Security?
And there's a very overt power dynamic. Flight attendants tell us when to eat, when to drink, when to use our personal electronic devices, and when we can remove our seat belts to go to the bathroom.

And there is no shortage of crazy antics to deal with aboard aircraft. Just recently, French actor Gerard Depardieu peed in the aisle when an attendant denied him access to the bathroom during takeoff procedure on a flight to Dublin from Paris.

A defence mechanism for flight attendants is necessary. We don't blame cabin crews for inventing an easy way to assess passenger sanity.

We've never had an ugly encounter with a flight attendant. Nothing like that time two years ago when a JetBlue attendant slid down the emergency evacuation chute, beer in hand, after an altercation with a passenger upon landing. Still, we'd hate to think that our style mistakes might lead us to miss out on certain privileges. We might be denied a cellophane-wrapped brownie. We might be passed over in the distribution of the tiny cups for water refills.
So we propose a new stereotype.

Well, we're not advocating any kind of stereotype. But if there's going to be one that equates panache with prestige aboard airplanes, it should be reversed -- the less panache, the more prestige. Maybe Ryan Gosling has a point. Maybe if you're too busy doing your job, you've every excuse not to press a three-piece suit and expertly dishevel your hair before take-off.

How to make the skies (and the ground beneath them) friendlier

The working conditions for flight attendants are stressful enough. We imagine it's like a cross between being a prison guard and a kindergarten teacher. Research suggests that flight attendants are prone to burnout and isolation that affect health and job performance. No wonder: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, they fly an average of 75-90 hours per month. That's just the time in flight. So we could all stand to put on an air of civility when we fly.

But the issue here is a more grave concern for overt classicism and stereotypes that are often detrimental, even dangerous. Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was detained at a New York airport in 2002, wrongfully accused of having terrorist connections, imprisoned and tortured. Then there's Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was fatally shot, according to investigators, because he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

One winter night, we hailed a Toronto cab that neglected to stop for us, and then turned around. The driver explained: "Oh, you're wearing a hoodie. I thought you were black." We promptly got out and walked in the freezing cold.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. It's youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow
Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger