Fasten Seatbelts

Washington Times 12.08.98
Balint Vazsonyi

"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 exploded.

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 of space.

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 since.