It’s no secret that the U.S. air transportation system is broken. What’s interesting is the way that people are accommodating to it.
Right now, I’m sitting at San Francisco airport, where my flight has been indefinitely delayed because “the crew has refused the plane.” Never heard that before. A few minutes later, the captain came to the gate to explain his decision. A gauge showing the fuel level in the tanks on one side of the plane isn’t working, so while there’s no indication that the plane would be flying lopsided, there would be no way to know until it was too late. I noticed three interesting things about this event.
First, having the captain explain the delay is kind of like having a Sony engineer show up at your door to explain why your television doesn’t work. The attendants at the gate are like marketing. They may be nice, but you always doubt their knowledge and their honesty. Their job isn’t making a better product. It’s keeping you happy.
Second, having the captain speak at the gate feels like a protective coating has been rubbed away. In a kind of dual-reversal of roles, it feels as though we the passengers are being asked to take on an additional layer of responsibility for our own safety. I imagine the next step will be showing us the ground crew’s inspection report so that we can look up comparison data on the internet and make our own judgments about the plane’s health. Kind of like what’s happening with doctors and patients.
Finally, the captain mentioned that his was the third crew to refuse to fly the plane. In fact, he mentioned it three times in the course of a two-minute announcement. I can’t help but think that this was a coded statement of protest against an airline management that’s trying to save money by putting passenger safety at risk while the crews are heroically standing up for our safety. Is this true? Labor relations theater? Both? I don’t know. But in the end, the message is: we, the people who actually fly the planes, want you to know that we don’t trust our management. And neither should you.