"Would you like to be met by a police officer?" - the
shrill voice of the flight attendant echoed through the cabin. The
aircraft was on its descent and the usual commands about "placing
the trays and seat backs in an upright and locked position"
had been issued. The passenger in the row just ahead of us must
have said something, perhaps nothing more than "in a minute,
let me finish..." Whatever he said was in a quiet voice since,
sitting directly behind, we could not hear anything until the threat
Travelers used to make comparisons between airlines in Europe and
the United States. For the longest time, airlines in Europe were
state monopolies. You flew with them, or you did not fly - that
was the clear message from the check-in counter on through the meal
service. One nationality may have been more polite than another,
but nothing could compare with the genuine spirit of service practiced
by American carriers.
Airline employees in America were keenly aware of the choice available
to the public, as well as of the cause-and-effect relationship between
their conduct and the continued existence of their job. In addition,
service, for a long time, was an honorable trade.
Today, once seated, the first thing we are told in no uncertain
terms is that "it is a federal requirement to obey crew instructions."
Next, we are told of various things federal law prohibits, and what
will result in a fine or imprisonment. New orders have been introduced
about keeping seatbelts fastened throughout the flight, whether
or not the seatbelt sign is lit. Ostensibly, the crew cares greatly
about our safety and, presumably, we will be met by a police officer
if we disobey.
Having grown up in Hungary under the two worst versions of socialism
(Germany's "Third Reich" and Russia's Soviet variety)
may have rendered me excessively sensitive. But there are entirely
too many Americans - and their numbers are increasing - exercising
administrative power over other Americans. We have accepted them
at college campuses, government departments, and "human resource"
offices. But we pay to fly, and it is astonishing to watch a nation
reared on freedom acquiescing in such developments. Since the "police
officer" incident I have paid particular attention.
While many continue to perform their taxing duties with grace and
cheer, a growing number of stewards and stewardesses, now renamed
flight attendants, come with a permanently sullen expression. Severity
and impatience also abound. Severity, and the presumption of a flight
attendant impersonating an officer of the law, result from the general
commissar mentality now rampant in America. Petulance and impatience
seem to derive from mistaking service as a means of earning an honest
living for being "the victim of an exploitive society."
Given the claim that the airline is very concerned with our safety
- the reason for keeping the seat belt fastened at all times - questions
arise about certain configurations of seats. Specifically, I refer
to the "main cabin" (read: economy class) on the A310
Airbus operated on the transatlantic route by American Airlines.
The distance between rows is such that, if the passenger before
you leans back slightly, there is no way to get in or out of the
seat. I watched young women, weighing no more than 100 lbs. doing
gymnastics to climb free. Since the traditional bracing position
for an emergency landing can be assumed no longer, it has been replaced
with a picture showing one's head against the seat ahead.
Airlines are in business to turn a profit. Some transatlantic journeys
cost no more today than they did 40 years ago. All that is beyond
debate, but it is impossible to imagine an emergency evacuation
under the present circumstances. When I asked that the captain or
a member of the flight crew come back to note and discuss those
conditions, the flight crew remained aloof and an array of comic-book
excuses were offered through the head flight attendant. In the end,
though, she dropped her officious language and agreed whole-heartedly,
adding that it is impossible to perform their basic work for lack
There is a real need for a practice run. The "main cabin"
of an Airbus should be filled with airline executives, FAA administrators
who had approved the configuration, and members of congressional
oversight committees. There ought to be the usual array of carry-on
luggage and personal junk. A meal would be served. In the middle
of it, harmless smoke should fill the cabin and evacuation ordered
- all safely on the ground, of course, with journalists and TV cameras
present. Now, there's a prime-time special!
And these fake passengers should be threatened with real police
officers if they fail to obey promptly.
To be fair, commissar behavior is on display just the same on Delta.
And Northwest stands out by having its safety instruction video
narrated by several crew members who cannot articulate English words.
The airline obviously gives precedence to the "correct"
ethnic, racial and gender mix over safety.
What is next? Are we on our way to a Soviet-style approach to safety?
Are we to obey if a crew member issues capricious instructions?
And are we at the mercy of some person who finds going around with
a pleasant expression an intolerable burden imposed by "unjust
and oppressive" society?
Alas, it all comes from the top. There, in January 1993, power
was substituted for service. And it has been trickling down ever