The outrage seems to have dissipated, as I write now, but the impression remains, and it’s disturbing: a private citizen violently removed from a commercial jet because he would not acquiesce to the airline’s demand that he relinquish the seat he had purchased for a short flight. For a week or so after that April incident, the expressions of indignation on radio and cable TV, and from thousands of self-authorized moralists on social media, were frequent and insistent, and certain: this would be the end for … something.
But the passenger assault happened, and then nothing happened. There were the breathless eyewitness accounts, the comments from airline industry experts, the legal analysis of the airline’s and the victim’s points in the matter, and the assertions from financial analysts and market forecasters of what it means for the industry going forward. And then within a week or so everyone’s indignation had passed to some other matter. There have been some subsequent incidents of passengers running afoul of the flight crews or gate agents, but the story that started the outrage is history now, forgotten. We’ve moved on.
Well, it’s not really history, as the principals surely will have to resolve the legal exigencies of their confrontation, and there will be costs. And we have not moved on from it, really, because the reason that April episode set off a furor is most people suspect it might have happened before, and surely will happen again, and that it might even happen to us.
We know this, first, because the setting was perfectly recognizable. Who has not been stuffed into a narrow seat on an overcrowded flight, among grumbling strangers and stressed out crews, everyone seeming to demand something? … More space, more compliance, more fees for services that once were standard.
And, having been in such a place, it’s easy to recall how often we are made to feel that we are the major problem for airlines (or banks, or insurance companies) trying to fulfill their lofty mission statements. They are committed to customers, they’ll promise, even as they treat every one like an oversized bag that needs to be rechecked and stowed. The sight of a commercial enterprise asserting its authority to punish a private citizen, a customer, is surprising only because it was done in plain sight.
At some level of our understanding we know, too, that we are abettors to this uncivil arrangement, for who would not want that polished image of service and hospitality to be true, and to have it focused on us? And who, having booked a seat and paid his fee, does not want everything to go smoothly, and so quietly hopes the agitator in the back will pipe down and let the crew do their job?
And, we have not moved on because we’ve endured the frustration and suppressed anger of that moment, and we know we’ll experience it again. The tension portrayed in the smartphone video is palpable because almost anyone who has flown commercially in the past decade has felt the anxiety rise even in the departure gate. The fear of flying now is as much about the dread of confrontation and violence than it is about flight safety.
So, while the particular incident is memorable, it’s troubling because we would prefer not to believe that outrage and threats have become tools of persuasion, or even commerce. But they are. Anger and profanity are acceptable forms of rhetoric in many venues, and physical violence and property damage are acceptable forms of “civil” protest. We prefer to think we can keep that violence at a distance, but if you’ve been stuck on a plane you know now how near that moment is to you. We may not be buzzing about that April moment any longer, but it lingers.
I come from a time when we liked to hold on to the memories of big moments – Apollo 11, Lake Placid 1980, Berlin 1989 — because they helped us to understand the world we lived in, and where we belonged in it, and how the things we believed were true, and enduring. Big moments still help us understand, but we’d prefer not to know those things we discover. Now, the “big moments” are regrettable and (we believe) forgettable. But we won’t forget because it’s the outrage that draws us together