A Mesa Airlines flight attendant was going through her preflight routine for a trip from Aspen, Colo., to Denver when she got to the matter of smoking.
"If you do feel the need to smoke, we do have a smoking section for you located outside on the tip of each wing," Margaret Fagan said from the front of the twin-prop, 36-seat, DeHavilland Dash-8. For anyone who got the urge to light up out there, "the feature film will be 'Gone with the Wind.'"
Fagan isn't the only Mesa flight attendant that gets to be herself when going over the ropes of air safety for passengers -- another one, Tommie Means, sings the entire thing gospel-style, according to Mesa Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Ornstein.
You could say Ornstein is responsible for all this creativity: He's the one who gave the flight attendants the go-ahead to express themselves, at least within certain limits.
"We have always felt that our flight attendants are our primary contact with the public," Ornstein said in an interview. "We tell them: 'Do us a huge favor, bring your personality to work. Be yourself. Don't just read the (safety) briefing. You're not going to get in trouble.'"
On the Aspen-to-Denver flight, it was clear that Fagan, for one, has taken this directive to heart: "In just a few minutes, I will be turning off the main cabin lights to enhance the beauty of your flight attendant."
Analysts say this sort of attitude makes all the difference for low-fare airlines looking for an edge over the more buttoned-down, bigger carriers.
This is even true when all the joking doesn't seem very original, according to Kim Moy, who recently flew a Mesa connection on her way home to San Jose, Calif. -- and recalled hearing similar jokes on a Southwest Airlines flight.
"It still put a smile on my face," Moy said. "I still laughed."
It's a pretty stark contrast when you ride Mesa or another discount airline with spunky flight attendants, and transfer to a flight with one of the big guys like United Airlines or Delta Air Lines, which frown upon wisecracking.
"I have received negative feedback from US Airways employees regarding my jokes because 'that's not what US Airways says in their announcements and it's not professional,'" Fagan said. Mesa provides connecting service for US Airways, United and Delta.
Still, it's something that cuts through the boredom, and perks people up.
"I really don't know if comedy routines build traffic for a carrier, but at least it makes a trip somewhat more enjoyable," says John Pincavage, a longtime airline analyst who runs Pincavage & Associates out of Westport, Conn. "Based on the hassles associated with flying commercial airlines today, any break in the routine is a bit of a blessing."
It especially comes in handy during short flights that tend to be short on amenities -- like Mesa's hop from Aspen to Denver, where there's not even water available. All the more reason to have "cheerful, friendly and nice" flight attendants who can say what they need to say without being monotonous or pedantic, Mesa's Ornstein said.
"Flight attendants have become safety professionals, but they have forgotten they're also in customer service," he said. "Let's not get to the point where we're the police. Just treat people as you would like to be treated."
So, as far as flight attendants' creativity goes, what are the limits?
"You want to be careful not to discuss operational matters or talk about weather that can impact the flight. The point is, don't do anything to make people more nervous," Ornstein said.
Mesa must be doing something right. His company has been profitable 27 out of 28 quarters, and lost money only after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Still, while humorous flight attendants may help keep customers coming back, it doesn't work for everyone. Some passengers are uncomfortable pairing up jokes with air travel.
"Every year we get a few complaint letters" where passengers say the "jokes are not appropriate," said Ornstein, adding that when he writes the customers back he tells them he'll "look into it right away. Then I talk to the flight attendants, and I tell them: 'good job!'"
Some selections from Mesa flight attendant Margaret Fagan's Denver-to-Aspen preflight safety announcement:
"There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only four ways off this aircraft, which include the main cabin door through which you entered; the door directly across from it; 2 additional exits under-wing exits are located at row 4 -- one on each side."
"One more thing ladies and gentlemen: The FAA does require that I notify you where the flight deck is located. It's located at the front of the aircraft. Where else would it be but at the front of the aircraft?"
While taxiing after landing: "The next time you have the insane desire to go catapulting through the skies in a pressurized metal tube, we hope you'll think of us at United Express, operated by MESA Air Group, 2005 Regional carrier of the year."
Paul Lin is an asap contributor based in Connecticut.