We tend to assume someone was at fault when a terrible event results from the execution of a standard policy that was not appropriate to the crisis at hand. Who’s to blame in this nightmarish scenario?
Karen Momsen-Evers was on a Southwest Airlines plane about to take off from New Orleans to Milwaukee, where she lived. Then her husband Andy sent her a text asking her for forgiveness for his imminent suicide. “I go to sleep at night thinking what could I have done, what should I have done,” Evers said. She texted back “No,” but the text arrived as flight attendants were doing their final cabin checks. She wanted to call him. The flight attendant ordered her to turn her phone off, and when she insisted, was told that the FAA regulations prohibited any further use of her cellphone. “The steward slapped the phone down and said you need to go on airplane mode now,” Momsen-Evers told reporters.
Once the flight reached cruising altitude, the desperate woman explained the situation to another attendant. She begged her to have someone make an emergency phone call, but the attendant insisted there was nothing she could do.
So Karen Momsen-Evers sat in her seat, looking at the text and sobbing, all the way to Milwaukee. When she arrived home she was met by police officers, who told her Andy had killed himself.
Southwest Airlines offered a statement once the story was publicized:
“Our hearts go out to the Evers family during this difficult time.Flight attendants are trained to notify the Captain if there is an emergency that poses a hazard to the aircraft or to the passengers on-board. In this situation, the pilots were not notified.”
So who was at fault? Nobody, really. Or everybody:
1. The FAA. The FAA’s no cell phone rule has been generally debunked as idiotic. Since the chances of a phone call crashing the plane are nil, a provision that allows calls in special circumstances is a no-brainer, but agency bureaucrats don’t like to use their brains at all.
2. The first flight attendant. The Golden Rule needs to be added to the Southwest training manual. Seriously, Southwest? Your attendants are trained to act like zombies even when a distraught passenger says that her husband just texted a pre-suicide note? They really fear FAA sanctions if they save someone’s life by bending a rule? This airline needs to raise the IQ requirements for its employees.
3. The second flight attendant. What was she, a moonlighting lawyer? Yes, technically this was not an emergency that endangered a passenger or the plane. It was an emergency that endangered a human being on the ground. A competent, compassionate human being in a Southwest uniform would have talked to the captain. Hell, I once asked an attendant to get an update on a Red Sox play-off game, and the captain announced the score to the plane.
4. The husband. A texted “I’m going to kill myself and there’s not a thing you can do about it” note to his wife? Nice. Suicide notes should be added to the “do not text” etiquette list along with notices of divorce filings, firings and lay-offs, and broken engagements.
5. The wife. This is pure hindsight bias, I know. Karen may have thought she was dealing with people with actual brains, souls and consciences because she doesn’t fly as often as I do. But she had it within her power to force Southwest to let her off the plane if she threw a loud, noisy fit. If she was arrested later and charged (she wouldn’t be—even the notoriously arbitrary Southwest wouldn’t dare), so what? I know the fit route is what I would have taken, because I’ve used similar tactics before, and believe me, they work.
Or nobody. This was a collective effort, with everyone dealing, badly, with a stressful crisis nobody could anticipate.