Ethics Field Trip: People, Planes, Prosthetics and Problems

It’s an occupational malady: if your work involves thinking and talking about ethics, the increasingly unpleasant experience of travel becomes an ethics field trip. More than twelve hours spent in four airports and planes prompted these observations:

  • Nobody has enough employees any more, meaning that waits are longer, time is wasted, and large numbers of people are inconvenienced because 1) companies are putting their bottom line over doing serving their customers efficiently or well, and 2) the government is currently run by people who want to penalize making money. As a long-term strategy, making customers stand in line to save the cost of one or two low-paid clerks is catastrophic, adding to unemployment, wasting the time of productive people who can create more wealth and jobs doing something other than standing in airport lines, and making life in general a great deal more frustrating and boring. On this trip, I observed severely understaffed air port check-in counters, hotel registration desks, airport book stores, restaurants, and drug stores. One completed flight was stuck at the gate for 20 minutes because the only crew available to prepare the gate for unloading was “on break.”
  • Speaking of understaffed: the Transportation Security Administration has apparently joined the club. I always set of the security alarm because of an artificial hip. The current practice is to make someone like me wait in a glass-walled pen, locked on one end and guarded at another. There is no chair, which isn’t a problem if, as in the past, the call of “Male assist!” (Translation: “Someone get a wand and pat down this guy!”) gets a response in less time than it takes to make toast. But that’s not happening now. Now, I am forced to wait as much as ten minutes, not because there is anyone else being wanded, but because they need to pull someone off of other security duties to frisk me. Sometimes I spur them along by pressing my face against the glass.
  • And back to wasting time: I know I have mentioned this before, but only naked greed can justify the airlines continuing the backwards incentive created by charging up to $25 per checked luggage. This has resulted in passengers bringing on board far too many large pieces, including those with wheels, to avoid the charges. All the overhead bins are filled before the passengers are boarded, causing the boarding process to freeze as passengers seated in the back of the plane  pull luggage against the line to find space in front of the plane, meaning that passengers stuck in the line who have seats in the front find that the luggage space over their seats are full, and try to push to the back of the plane, stow their bags, and then swim upstream against the tide of passengers and luggage back to their seats. This almost always results in a late departure.
  • It also has caused the airline personnel to routinely lie: as I have reported before, passengers are told that they are on a “full flight” to encourage them to check bags. I was told this four times. None of the flights were full. One wasn’t close to being full.
  • What is proper etiquette in a window seat, when one shares an armrest with the poor center seat dweller? I always try to get an aisle seat, because with a little leaning I can cede my other arm rest to the center passenger. On the window side, however, I can’t lean…indeed, I am usually squashed against a wall. My beefy companion in the center kept elbowing my arm of our shared rest….I noticed that he also had won the shared armrest on the other side. One school of thought is that being stuck in the center is such a hardship, both armrests should be given to the unlucky passenger there. Is this right?
  • Bait and Switch Dept.” “Wi-Fi on Board!” was printed right on my Delta plane. Deceit: the honest message would have been, “Wi-Fi on Board, if you’re expense account will pay $12 buck for a two-hour flight.”
  • Should planes have features you can only use by annoying fellow passengers? Two flights had television screen in the back of the seats, and you controlled volume and channels by touching the screens. On both of my screens I had to firmly “tap” the screen to make anything happen, and on one flight the hyper-sensitive woman sitting in the seat in front of me angrily informed me that my tapping was disturbing her. This meant that I had to use the controls in my seat, which thanks to the guy spilling over the armrest next to me, required me to be a contortionist.
  • Note to the TSA: Watch out for passengers with prosthetics! The security staff tells us not to have anything in our pockets when we go through screening, but if our hip or knee sets off the alarm and we prepare them for it the alarm in advance, the staff never thinks that the alarm could have been caused by anything else. Twice, as an experiment, I palmed something in my hand going through the gate—it easily could have been a knife—then dropped it in my tray of belongings that had been screened while the guy with the wand was looking away.  It’s a flaw in the system, and a lot more dangerous than letting passengers keep their shoes on. It is also not that hard to figure out. This raises doubts in my mind about the diligence and competence of Homeland Security and the Transportation Department.

Imagine that.

Finally, I would like to suggest that all of those who suggested that the Jet Blue flight attendant who went bananas was the natural end-product of wretched passenger conduct on airplanes were and are completely wrong. Given the miserable and de-humanizing treatment of passengers these days, their patience, politeness and general good spirits are astounding. In fact, I would say that the way air travelers conduct themselves is an oasis spot of ethics and civility in an increasingly barren America landscape.

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