Summer Air Travel Disaster: “We” Collides with “Me”
Getting onto the jet about twenty minutes prior to pushback, I encounter an all-to-familiar scene: standing in the doorway to the cockpit is a man with a bag and a hopeful look on his face, flanked by two flight attendants giving me we tried to tell him looks.
“In this bag,” he tells me, pointing to his roll-aboard that’s about half again as large as the normal size limit, “I have $30,000 worth of fragile instruments. The suitcase is too large to fit in the overhead bin,” he continues, “so why can’t I just put it into the forward coat closet here?”
This is where his “me” collides with our “we:” I sure empathize with him regarding whatever he had in his bag. He’s thinking, in his mind, out of “me:” I have this stuff, I know what it is, I know it’s beyond the permitted size . . . me, me, and me.
That runs headlong into “we:” we are not permitted by the FAA to put anything other than crew bags in that closet ($5,000 fine for the forward flight attendant), we have a full flight, including five flight attendants whose bags already take up the allotted space for them in that closet. We already explained to you the carry-on size limits, and we have already heard what you’re going to ask next.
“Well,” he continues, after I politely point out that the closet is full of crew bags for the working crew plus a jumpseater, “Many times before they’ve let me put this behind the pilot’s seat up in the cockpit.”
I almost get nostalgic thinking back to the air travel days prior to 9-11, compared today’s world of underpants bombers, Air Marshals, pilots armed with 9mm handguns and bad people in far away countries relentlessly plotting to exploit our air travel system as a weapon of terror. That’s what we have to deal with, and we have had to change our way of thinking: there won’t be anything someone brings aboard that we’ll stow in the cockpit.
Because we as flying crewmembers have been mandated–and willingly adopt–a “group-think” that looks for threats in everything. Because we fly between 140 and 200 days a year and because we’ve been charged with stewardship of our air travel system and its security, never mind our own determination to see our families after our trip. And when you’re on board, you too are part of the “we” with everything at stake.
I take the easy way out. “We have a jumpseater in the cockpit today,” I tell him, “Sorry, but there’s no room for extra baggage.” For god’s sake, we’re not even allowed to carry critical parcels like organs for transplant any more in the cockpit–because you really don’t know what’s inside unless you open it–which we ain’t, and the flight deck is no place for surprises, period. I hate that, because I think of the organ transplant people involved at both ends of such a flight–but I never forget those on board nonetheless.
This goes beyond the obvious hassle for the other 159 passengers on board, many of whom are stuck on the jet bridge as boarding halts to deal with him. This goes beyond his disregard for those folks, their downline connections that depend on our prompt departures, and even beyond his claim to special storage space which, if a flight attendant bag was placed in the overhead bin, would deny another passenger space for his bag.
There’s more going on than that–which ought to be enough for any considerate passenger to avoid. Sure, Mr. “Critical Instruments” is only thinking out of his own world of “me,” putting us in the position of being in his “me-world,” the bad guys. But what he really needs to do is join the group-think that encircles his “me-world:” realize that the constraints apply to all, and that they are an inflexible necessity in this post-9/11 world. Join the “we” and make the trip smoother: we don’t expect to slip outside of the rules, we don’t expect to bend them, we don’t expect to be exempt.
I have to prove myself, despite my identification as the captain in command of the flight, by going through security screening like everyone else. You bet it’s a pain in my ass–god forbid if I were to actually access the cockpit–but I also embrace it: that’s the “we” that transcends the “me” for the betterment of all. Flight crew know this, so we do our part.
Yet honestly, sometimes we fail. I had an agent walk a passenger down the jetbridge before boarding in one of our smaller stations. The agent carried a briefcase-sized bag that was wrapped once or twice in cargo tape. “This man is a professional chef,” the agent informed me. “He requires this full set of chef’s knives to perform his duties, so I’ve sealed this case and he’s agreed to leave it in the overhead bin for the entire flight.”
Sigh. No, there will not be a full set of butcher knives and meat cleavers in the cabin–even wrapped in a few swipes of duct tape. When I put it that way, the agent returned to his senses, and rather sheepishly offered the normal procedure: “We can ship it as cargo, but not in the cabin.”
The fact that in 2012 we still have to have these conversations is troubling. Are we already forgetting the basic, albeit annoying sacrifices we must individually make in order to thwart those relentless dark forces looking for new ways to terrorize our nation through spectacular feats of evil?
Are we just going through the motions, but reserving exceptions in our own minds for ourselves, forgetting about the broad-based group-think that really only works if we forgo me for the best interest of all?
I sure hope not. But if we’ve already forgotten the hard lessons for which we’ve paid dearly in the recent past, if we’ve already through laziness or selfishness let down our guard, besides the fact that the bad guys win by default, one thing I can promise you is this: it’s going to be a long, hot, painful summer.
What I wouldn’t give to be proven wrong.