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.


9 Responses to “Summer Air Travel Disaster: “We” Collides with “Me””

  1. Thanks for this. Surely is an eye-opener! Will definitely share!

  2. Thank you for looking out for our safety.

  3. Cedarglen Says:

    Another good one, Captain, and thanks. If the “$30k Instrument guy had a half-brain, he’d have already shipped his “instruments” to his final destination as an on over-night parcel. Would it cost him a little more? Of course! If said fool’s parcel is truly that valuable, he’d have already done so and there would be no conversation as described above. He gambled on your willingness to break the rules and he lost. And much the same for the ‘Chef.’ Nuts! There won’t be any knives or expensive instruments on My Airplane, said the Captain. If wither of them had been smart, they’d have paid a few buck for FedEx or similar service and their good would be waiting for them on arrival. And yes, FedEx and similar services have a darn good record of performance in the overnight market and their fees are not unreasonable. They’ve even got far better insurance benefits un the unlikely event that something gets lost. (Yes, far better than basic checked luggage – but for a fee.) Many years ago a far more experienced traveller (my boss!) sent be on a long foreign trip and I was able to include some vacation time in a distant place, a please that I coould not have otherwise afforded. His solution was simple: Travel light and pre-ship your vacation and/or business clothing via air freight, marked “Hold for Arrival.” sure there is some minimal risk of appearing at a business session in beach shorts, but the process has never failed me. When done, ship it back to origin -home/office/neighbor and don’t lug it the rest of the way around the world. This ain’t rocket science and it is not unreasonably expensive. It also saves that stupid wink at the captain, while begging for some extra space. If the fellow had purchased a First Class ticket, he ‘might’ have found some extra space in that cabin, but still not a good bet. In today’s post-9/11 environment, the brain-free fellow is lucky that he did not get is paired seating cheeks and his valuable luggage tossed off the aircraft. It not so much the Captain’s right, but his responsibility to do so. The airlines are not interstate moving companies, folks. learn to travel with One Light Bag – or less and move your butt down that aisle. I’ve said enough. -C.

  4. Way too patient Christo. They should issue you a Taser for hard to handle passengers.

  5. SuperDaveMc Says:

    Very well put. I too miss the days working line maintenance at a hub, , simply grab my toolbox, hop onboard, and fly to an outstation to fix or ferry a bird back home. All the time wearing and carrying knives, pliers, screwdrivers, etc,
    Sadly, my daughter will never know the fun side of a quick airline hop…. and it’s not the fault of the airline folks that loved making it fun. Great Blog Post JetHead!

  6. Ignacio Says:

    I don’t really know what would be the difference between having a bomb explode in the cabin or in the flight deck; In the end, you’d be all screwed..

  7. I remember asking a Captain to take an envelope from one station to another and he correctly declined until he had a look inside and saw that it was just paperwork. But I’m glad that he was cautious. Sadly, in this world today, this is part and parcel of life.

  8. Good stuff, Chris. It’s an increasing–but necessary–pain in the a$$. I feel bad that we can’t accommodate some people with their needs, but you’re right that the “we” outweighs the “me”–and they should know that by now!


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