In one fell swoop, he became a hero, a villain, an Internet meme and even a Halloween costume. But Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who dramatically quit his job last August by sliding down his plane’s emergency chute after a run-in with a passenger, says that looking back, he regrets his actions.
“At the end of the day, would I have chosen to make the same decisions again? Probably not,” he told Matt Lauer in an interview that aired on TODAY Wednesday.
“It was time to go — it was definitely time to go,” he said about his job. “I probably shouldn’t have allowed myself to get to a point where I had become so frustrated.”
Slater, who pled guilty last week to two counts of criminal mischief, spoke out in detail for the first time, sharing his take on what happened.
“There are a number of different versions of the story that I myself have read,” he told Lauer.
Indeed, the events of that day have been hotly contested. According to reports, Slater was working on a plane flying out of Pittsburgh on Aug. 9, and says that a rude passenger set him off. When the plane landed in New York City’s JFK airport, Slater got on the loudspeaker, cursed out the passenger, took a beer, deployed the emergency chute, jumped off of the plane and went home to his boyfriend in Queens, N.Y.
The infamous gash
Some passengers claim that Slater, 39, had been exhibiting bad behavior before the aircraft ever took off, and say that a mysterious bloody gash on his forehead — which he attributes to a knock on the head from a passenger grabbing her luggage from the overhead bin — was seen before he boarded the plane.
“The injury happened on the ground in Pittsburgh during the boarding process,” Slater told Lauer, reiterating that the gash, along with the passenger’s attitude, incited him. "It was one of those perfect storms of bad manners and incivility that we’re all accountable for — myself, the fellow passengers, the airline industry that has created this monster where, you know, we’re charging you to check your bags and now all of a sudden we’re not going to bother policing what’s coming on board the airplane.
“The decision that I made, which was probably not the best one at the time, was to continue with the flight,” Slater continued. “I should have said, ‘Time out; I’m going to have somebody take a look at this and I’ll be back.’ ”
But federal investigators who spoke with passengers aboard the flight were unable to find witnesses to corroborate Slater’s account.
Slater claims that the scuffle itself wasn’t actually a big deal and could have gone unnoticed. “I can tell you for one thing, it was not nearly as spectacular as it’s been made out to be,” he said. “It was not a huge event, or I would have left right then and there.”
Slater also says that reports alleging that he was drunk when he boarded the plane are untrue — but he concedes that he was a little the worse for wear.
“I had been out the night before. I will admit, I was not in the best of shape,” he said. “I was sleep-deprived, it was a rough night, and it was probably not the best professional appearance.”
Slater did have a lot on his mind going into the flight. A recovering alcoholic who is HIV-positive, Slater lost his father to Lou Gehrig’s disease and has been helping care for his sick mother.
“I was stressed out, I was burned out, and something had to give,” he said of his emotional state back in August. “It didn’t necessarily need to give the way that it did, but it certainly needed to give.”
Not looking to make a statement
A flight attendant for nearly 20 years, Slater denies media reports that he had been looking for an opportunity to leave his job with such fanfare, saying that his words were misinterpreted.
“That was something that was taken grossly out of context,” he said. “The conversation was, ‘Had you ever thought about what it entails to go down a slide?’ And I said, ‘Yes, for 20 years of recurrent training, we practice these moves … for 20 years, I’ve thought about what it would be like if we ever had to do so.’ It turned into, ‘Steven Slater premeditated this whole thing for 20 years.’ ”
Making fun of such allegations, Slater joked to Lauer: “If I were looking to get my name known, I would have called you up first and said, ‘There’s going to be something going down at JFK, get yourselves out here.’”
Slater, who has been ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution to JetBlue and attend counseling, did express his frustration with the airline industry, saying that leaving his job has been “a tremendous weight off my shoulders,” and adding that he wouldn’t want to work a flight again under current conditions in the airline industry.
“I would like to return to what it was, not what it is. And I’ve come to a place of acceptance that what it was is no longer available today,” he said. “I loved being a flight attendant. Unfortunately, today’s industry just isn’t really where I need to be.”
Many regarded Slater as a hero for everyday working people, relating to his frustration and the desire to make a memorable exit. A day after the incident made headlines, Slater had more than 160,000 new Facebook fans (he currently has more than 202,000) and provided great fodder for Internet memes and late-night comedians. Slater said he was surprised by the initial response, but that much of that was perpetuated by a “media-created two-dimensional image.”
“I’m thankful that people did get a laugh,” he said. “I didn’t, obviously, do this for comic relief, but I think it was a moment for people to pause and take a breath and say, ‘You know what, I get this.’ ”