COUR TES Y OF GAILEN DAVID AND AMERICAN AIRLINES
Whiz kid featured by TW in the ’70s makes dream a reality
By Bill Poling
Like any 10-year-old, Rocky David likes to go
to the airport and watch the planes take off.
But when this youngster watches a take-off,
there’s a difference — one of his customers
might be onboard.
So began a report in this newspaper, 29
years ago, about a kid who was so enamored of airplanes, airlines and air travel that
he started booking airline trips for family
and friends when he was 9 years old. His
working tools included a notebook, a telephone and the Official Airline Guide.
Our report of this hobbyist travel agent
ended with Rocky’s description of his
dream job: “I’d like to be the person at the
desk who gives you the ticket; I’d like to be
a ticket agent or a travel agent … or a steward … or a pilot.”
That was in November 1977.
Today, Gailen “Rocky” David is a purser
for American Airlines, living the dream.
Working out of Miami, he flies mostly
on long hauls to the West Coast. He uses
words like “thrill,” “lucky” and “passion”
to describe his job. He can state, “I’m still
pinching myself” without a hint of irony.
This is a man who loves what he does.
As a teen, he got summer jobs working
for his father’s business that required trips
all over the country, and he booked his own
travel. “I tried all the different airlines,” he
said. When he was 18, he began working
part-time in an agency in suburban Atlanta
(The Travel Company, since closed).
So impressive was his knowledge of airline routes that he was invited to apply for a
job after he joined a conversation between
an agent and a client to suggest a better
itinerary for a trip they were planning.
In a recent interview with Travel Weekly,
David recalls, “I loved the travel agency, but
the idea of calling an airplane your place
of work — I couldn’t get that out of my
He began applying for flight attendant
jobs at 19. Piedmont flew him to Winston-Salem, N.C., for an interview, where he
fretted that he would be rejected because of
his age. He was rejected, but not because of
his age. “I was over the weight limit!”
Relieved, he went home, lost the weight,
came back and failed again, this time because Piedmont realized he wasn’t 21. He
kept at it, and when the call finally came to
report to American for training, “I couldn’t
believe it.” He got his wings in 1988, 11 years
after he was featured in Travel Weekly.
The story of Gailen David would be a
straightforward story of a dream come
true, except for one thing: Rocky’s road became a rocky road.
for slowing down the meal service and announcing that “we’re going to wait for this
family” to settle down.
It’s not the sort of thing pursers are
supposed to do with the microphone. “I
thought my job was over.”
He took a leave of absence to get his head
straight and checked himself into a mental
health facility for several weeks.
He came back to American 10 months
later with a new, positive attitude that
would make him a star.
After several years as a flight attendant
and purser, David began to acquire a reputation for “incidents” with passengers.
In the 1990s, many airline employees felt
they were unappreciated by management
and passengers alike. Airline service was
much in the news. There were frequent reports of what David calls “this surly, bitter
treatment.” He confesses, “I became one of
those people. I was so angry.”
He finally snapped in 1998, using the
aircraft’s PA system to criticize the behavior
of a family in business class, blaming them
As David recalls it, management noticed
the change and began to ask him to make
presentations at training workshops for
cabin crews and ground employees. Soon
he had a virtual second career as a motivational speaker, as the airline
sent him off to meet with
employees and recount his
turnaround from surly steward to proud purser.
Along the way, he wrote
and starred in “The Video.”
The video clip, “Why I Fly
— Gailen’s Story,” became
a part of his presentation in
2005 and enjoyed some brief
notoriety on several Internet
sites earlier this year before American had
it yanked, citing copyright issues.
In the video, parts of which are hilarious, David reminisces about proud moments from the beginning of his career
and tells how the vim and vigor quickly
All too soon, life on the job became a
case of “me and the enemy,” as if passengers
and management were “working together
to make my life miserable.”
The video demonstrates the vengeful
techniques he used to annoy passengers
who had slighted or ignored him, such as
telling the rest of the crew that “this passenger is mine; do not answer any of his
questions or get him anything.”
Another technique is the “fly by,” where
the attendant deliberately brushes past the
targeted passenger. “Just when he thinks
that he’s got my attention, I fly by.”
He confesses, “I wore myself out” torturing passengers and “went off the deep end.”
The video shows him being carted off in a
David admits that some people in management were wary of the candor and the
humor of the video but says it went over
well with employees and became part of
customer service retraining sessions.
‘I loved the travel
agency, but the idea of
calling an airplane your
place of work — I
couldn’t get that out of
my mind.’ — Gailen David
A key message in the video, and now one
of David’s core beliefs, is that customer service workers are more powerful than they
realize; they have the power to shape a customer’s perception of a product, a brand,
an entire industry.
“It’s a powerful position but they don’t
give themselves credit,” which is why they
burn out, as he did.
David says the video also reawakened the
performer in him. He landed a bit part in a
movie and in a Royal Caribbean commercial in the early 1990s, plus a few gigs as a
motivational speaker when he had a consumer products business a few years ago.
After writing and starring in the seven-minute skit, David posted his mug on Tal-entMarch.com, advertising his availability
for bit parts, comedy, voice-overs, etc.
So far, Hollywood hasn’t called, but that’s
fine by David, who insists, “My passion is
the airline industry.”
The headline over the Travel Weekly story in 1977 said, “At age 10, boy’s hobby as
amateur agent may be first step on road to
a career in travel.”
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