Friday, March 30, 2012

Air Scare, Again

Three days after a JetBlue Airways pilot had a midair meltdown and had to be restrained by passengers, prompting an emergency landing, industry analysts are talking about stress.

Stress on flight crews prompted by declining salaries, packed airplanes, fears of terrorism and more. No one is excusing the pilot's shouting, incoherent rants about Jesus, 9/11, the sins of Las Vegas (where the plane was headed) and his subsequent wrestling match with passengers, but this is the context, commentators emphasize, in which the frightening incident took place.

All true enough.

Stress falls on passengers, too, though. And unlike airline employees, air travelers are not trained to handle energencies or paid to be there. Rather, they file onto crowded planes, where they are charged extra for every little thing, try to pile luggage in too-small spaces to avoid checked luggage fees, struggle to open a laptop or a newspaper when the person in front of them pushes their seat back.

That's the state of domestic U.S. air travel, the glamour of flying long gone for most fliers.

Oh, and passengers pay to endure this. And that's after enduring long airport queues, frequent flight delays and the bullying of TSA screeners swelled up with too much self-importance and too little sensitivity.

What is to be done?

For starters, revamped psychological screening for the most important person on any airplane: The pilot. Meltdowns by flight attendants - like the one onboard an American Airlines flight just two weeks ago - are bad enough. But when the person with the lives of dozens if not hundreds of other people in his hands goes beserk, it's much worse.

As for the captain in question, he is facing up to 20 years on charges of interfering with a flight crew. He may be troubled, he may have had a very bad day, but this is a person who should, at a minimum, find another line of work. Legal authorities will rule on the charges; if he is found guilty, the authorities should throw the book at him. JetBlue CEO Dave Barger said in an interview on NBC's "Today'' show that he knows the pilot personally and finds him to be "a consummate professional.'' Enough of cliches, please, and enough of denial.

Fortunately, the co-pilot on JetBlue flight 191 was calm, cool and collected and landed the plane safely in Amarillo, Texas after barring the cockpit door.

Airlines eternally announce that safety is their number one priority. Indeed, it should be. Commercial aircraft are not hotels or spas or restaurants. They are narrow metal tubes hurtling through the air at 500 miles per hour, 35,000 feet off the ground. The confidence of the U.S. flying public has been shaken. The airline industry needs to regain and solidify public trust, not with marketing gimmicks and denial but with training and policy changes, informed by what they have learned from these scares in the air.

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