A Stewardess Story

Yesterday I flew from Washington, D.C. to Columbus, Ohio. On the flight I was seated next to an off-duty, but uniformed, stewardess — I think the current, correct name is “flight attendant” — who was heading back to her home in central Ohio. I took advantage of the circumstance to ask a few questions.

How do you become a flight attendant? This was a young woman who had gone through several majors before graduating from college with a general business degree and who wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do. Flight attendant seemed like a good option, where you could make some money before moving on.

IMG_4243What’s it like being a flight attendant? It doesn’t sound like much fun, really. She had spent an entire day in Reagan National Airport after one of her flights had been cancelled. I hate airports, so that would be a special kind of hell for me. Flight attendants spend a lot of time in airports, of course. It sounds like they don’t get a lot of time to hang out in exotic locations; mostly they are guiding their rollerbags through the same boring airport concourses and hotel hallways that the rest of business travelers know all too well.

Has she had bad experiences on flights? Absolutely. Recently she had to break up an escalating alteraction between two men arguing about whether the plastic windowshade should be pulled up or down. She had to settle disputes between weirdly animated passengers who were were fighting over precious overhead storage space and whether a coat and backpack could be moved slightly so a rollerbag could be put up in the bin. If you do much traveling, you’ll recognize these types. It’s unfortunate, but there really are a lot of assholes out there.

Worst passengers? Drunks. Some people show up for flights so intoxicated they can barely communicate, and others are so inebriated they have lost all inhibition. She has to make a judgment if she can manage the problem for the entire flight. If you’re obviously wasted, acting out, and on a three-hour cross country flight with her, she’ll probably talk to the captain. It is not unusual for the captain to come back and tell a drunk he needs to get off the plane. Most captains are good about that, she says.

Does she use the airplane bathrooms? Never! She thinks they’re disgusting, and will gladly hold on and sprint for a terminal restroom rather than being exposed to the germinacious bathroom activities of the passengers.

Our conversation was brief. She was exhausted, and so was I. We dozed off, and this friendly young woman sank into a deep sleep that continued long after I awoke to prepare for landing. It obviously was the gloriously thrilling life of a flight attendant.

“Obamacare” And The Coming Elections

In 2014, every seat in the United States House of Representatives and 36 seats in the Senate — 21 held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans — will be up for election. Non-presidential election years are always unpredictable. In 2010, Democrats lost six seats in the Senate and 63 seats, and their majority, in the House of Representatives. Could 2014 see similarly significant swings in the makeup of Congress?

The wild card seems to be the Affordable Care Act, which everyone now seems to call “Obamacare.” In the past year, Obamacare has moved from concept to reality. The rollout of the law and its signature website have been beset by problems that have been well documented. The website hasn’t worked. Many of the deadlines have been delayed by executive orders that have angered conservatives who feel President Obama and administrators are bypassing the constitutional legislative process. Some individuals have been affected by the cancellation of their insurance policies or significantly increased premiums and other out-of-pocket costs. There is tremendous uncertainty about how, and when, and whether, other parts of the law may work.

As a result, Obamacare is not very popular with the public. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polling data, more than 50 percent of respondents oppose the law. Obviously, that’s not good news for Democrats who voted for the law. How will they respond?

According to a recent article in the National Journal, the plan for vulnerable Democrats is to distance themselves from President Obama, acknowledge difficulties with the law, but present themselves as working to fix its problems while Republicans just cross their arms and insist on a full-blown repeal. (Modern politics being what it is, I’m confident that the Democratic incumbents will be attacking their Republican challengers on a host of other issues, too, of course.) The National Journal article expresses some skepticism about whether the Democratic strategy is viable, and there is a special election for a House seat in Florida in March that may provide some clues about which way the electoral winds are blowing.

I think it’s still too early to draw hard and fast conclusions about “Obamacare” and its potential impact on the coming elections, because there are still pieces that have yet to fall into place. The deadline for individual enrollment is March 31, so we don’t know how many of the uninsured at whom the law was aimed will eventually sign up. We also don’t know how many people who have coverage under new health insurance plans purchased on the exchanges will fare as they seek health care at hospitals and with doctors, or whether a significant number of businesses might change their health care plans, or employee contribution requirements, in response to developments with the law.

I do agree with one point made by the National Journal article, however: messaging can only carry politicians so far. I think there is a broad understanding on the part of Americans of all political stripes that the rollout of the law and its website has been less than ideal — but by November 2014 the initial rollout problems will be many months old and the attention of the American electorate will likely be on more recent matters. Americans tend to be practical. If there haven’t been substantial new problems, the website crashes and error messages will seem like old news, and arguments that the President is governing by improper executive orders aren’t likely to gain much traction.

The broad awareness of “Obamacare” problems, however, has created a climate where many people are skeptical of the law and therefore receptive to more news about its problems. If the ultimate enrollment figures are well below what was forecast, if people start reporting that under their new plans they can’t get the health care they got before, and if the broad number of people who are covered by group plans through their employers start to see large increases in their premiums, deductibles, and co-payment obligations, no slick ad campaign is going to cure the sense that the law was a disastrous mistake. Carefully messaged TV commercials just won’t hold up if Americans are hearing about real Obamacare-related problems and costs from worried family members, neighbors, and friends.