November 24, 2004,
Last week the New York Times caught up to a titillating little online drama that has been fascinating certain corners of the blogosphere since October: the saga of former Delta flight attendant Ellen Simonetti known as Queen of Sky on her "Diary of a Flight Attendant" blog who was first suspended without pay and then fired for posting sexy shots of herself in uniform online.
Since then Simonetti's position on the hype radar has soared to a sort of media mile-high club; her TV appearances this week include spots on Today, Inside Edition, CNBC, and several local news and radio stations. Critics have accused her, not unfairly, of courting trouble and attention. Earlier this month, for instance, she posted a couple of the "pretty FREAKY emails" from fans requesting she send them her used pantyhose, or at least some socks.
"Queen of Sky...therefore will not be posting any more pics of her feet (or legs for that matter)," she responded on her blog. "OK, I lied, one more pic," she added, above a snapshot of her legs in fishnet stockings. "But this is the VERY last one!" No wonder an enterprising Internet squatter has created a site trading off her name that looks to be pretty profitable, what with all the soft-core ads for "Sinful Feet" and "Ladies in Uniforms."
Still, there's something endearingly perky about Simonetti's efforts to bring a little retro, Coffee, Tea or Me? glamour to what have been for years pretty unfriendly skies. "Even though Matt Lauer asked Q of S some mean questions today on Today," she posted cheerfully after her Monday appearance, "she still thinks he is HOT!"
And any wage-slave who's tangled with disapproving corporate bureaucrats will probably sympathize with her continued needling of her ex-employer. "I suppose everyone in the Delta marketing department was fired for ‘inappropriateness' after this ad campaign," she commented on her blog, above a ‘60s-era ad of a smiling stewardess titled "No floor show: just a working girl working."
A few days later she posted a photo of a woman in a burka, captioned: "Below is a flight attendant being fitted at the company uniform store."
Simonetti, who lives in Austin, Texas, began her blog in January, and it quickly drew a small but loyal following for its entertaining rants concerning Cuban-cigar-smuggling pilots, grumpy gate agents, and annoying passengers: "Rule #1: NEVER ask a flight attendant to lift your heavy-ass bag. If you can't lift it, you should've checked it." She never named her airline, although frequent flyers could tell from the route references that it was Delta.
She'd regularly put up photos of herself wearing a bikini, but Delta only lowered the axe after she posted suggestive pictures of herself in uniform. The shots, which featured a raised skirt here, an unbuttoned blouse showing a little bra there, were hardly pornographic. (As it happens, Simonetti had turned down an offer to pose for Playboy long before she hit the news.) But maybe they weren't the most risk-free adventure in this grimly post-"Fly Me" era.
As University of Virginia law professor J. H. Verkerke told the New York Times last week, "deeply ingrained in [airlines'] corporate culture and human relations practices is an aversion to that kind of sexualization." Verkerke, whose specialty is employment and labor law, also said that privacy doctrines don't apply to material posted on the Internet and in any case, "non-union employees enjoy very little protection for their off-duty activities."
Certainly Simonetti's situation doesn't really involve free speech; as web commentators on airline issues have pointed out about the case, private institutions have the right to limit how employees communicate about their employers to the public. But Delta, which in hopes of avoiding bankruptcy made a $1 billion cost-cutting deal with its pilots this month, may have a public relations problem with Simonetti.
Because when you have on one side a big, faceless corporate airline, associated like all airlines with the usual flight delays and discomfort, and on the other a fun-loving, six-foot-tall blonde flight attendant in a short skirt, it's not hard to imagine where most people's sympathies will lie. Or at least most men's sympathies.
"I've done nothing but fly Delta for the past two years," one commenter wrote on her blog this week. "But if they don't rehire you, I'm through with them."
For her part, Simonetti e-mailed me last month (when she was still merely suspended rather than fired): "I have found plenty of pics of MALE Delta employees on the Web in uniform, who actually identify the airline. Therefore, today filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC [Equal Opportunity Employment Commission]. They thought the whole suspension thing was ridiculous, too. The man that took my complaint and his supervisor did not find anything inappropriate about those pics. So I think I have a good case."
It's a funny thing, the matter of blogs and free speech. I almost never ban anyone from my own blog's comments section, for instance, because the insults and off-topic posts really don't bother me. I've only ever locked out two people: One for repeated foul language (although it upset readers more than it upset me), and another for his obsession with my 15-year-old daughter. Both immediately accused me of hypocritically denying them their right to free expression, which was of course ridiculous.
Apparently, banned commenters forget that free expression on the Internet is always available to them via blogs of their own. Attracting readers is another matter, of course, which is why they prefer to haul their soapboxes around to more popular sites. I sometimes have to remind commenters prone to bad language that my blog is indeed mine, not theirs. Anyone who doesn't understand that forgets that property rights are as fundamental to democracy as free speech.
In general, though, I favor the least restrictive environment, to use a special-ed phrase that comes to mind when I think of certain Internet commenters. So I really don't mind being called a fascist or a commie pinko or an egomaniac in my comments section. And I think that Delta might have cut its blogging flight attendant some slack, or at least issued a warning, before firing her.
But who knows what all of this will do for Queen of Sky's career in the long run? Hollywood is one possibility. Former flight attendant Elliott Hester, now a syndicated travel columnist, wrote a memoir three years ago called Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet. It's since been translated into several languages, as well as optioned for the movies by Whoopi Goldberg. Ellen Simonetti's blog may take her places Delta never did.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.