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 mind."

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.

Losing it

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 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.

The comeback

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 deteriorated.

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 straitjacket.

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.

Core belief

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 TalentMarch.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."   

True, that.

To contact News & Opinion editor Bill Poling, send e-mail to bpoling@travelweekly.com.

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