Not all that long ago, air travel was a clear badge of elite cultural distinction, from the “jet set” to the Sinatra-mangling ad slogan, “Come Fly With Me.” Droit-de-seigneur sexual fantasies of stewardess life were memorialized in that elegantly titled sixties tell-all Coffee, Tea, or Me? People actually used to dress up to take a plane. But that’s all over. Now you need a bulletproof vest when dealing with the cabin crew.
Airlines seem to be competing for Jerk of the Year awards. When they’re not bumping people off, figuratively or literally, they’re frighteningly “reaching out” to the customers they abused, customers with “issues.” (The language is patronizing and predatory.) We’re all sorry United’s planes are so attractive to terrorists. The staff must be under constant strain. But so are the passengers, with whom these tin-pot dictators are increasingly strict, banning leggings on ten-year-olds and bodily removing people from the passenger manifests.
Delta recruited airport police to threaten a couple with jail and the confiscation of their children, all for refusing to give up seats they’d paid for on a flight from Hawaii to LA. An American Airlines flight attendant bullied a tired mother of twin babies over her stroller, and then readied himself to punch a passenger who rose to her defense. These companies seem very exacting about how their customers behave—while apparently giving staff (or airport-based security officials) full license to unleash their inner demons. In airplane disaster movies, the pilot’s always wrestling with the yoke, trying to get full throttle; now these exertions are directed towards throttling the yokels.
Then United killed Simon. Simon was one of the largest rabbits in the world, maybe even a pooka! (United has a high rate of animal deaths, so watch whose hold you’re stuffing your poor pet into.) Rabbits go quietly belly-up, and Spandex-clad girls just sob and slip back into obscurity, taking their improper contours with them. But the sight of the bloodied Dr. Dao being manhandled and dragged along the aisle, on his back, through an “overbooked” United Airlines Chicago to Louisville flight, evoked fascist tactics, and caused United’s CEO to perform some tricky maneuvers to steer the airline out of a self-generated PR nose-dive. It also led to some suggestions for new slogans: Fly the unfriendly skies . . . Red eye and black eye flights available . . . If we can’t seat you we’ll beat you . . . Board as a doctor, leave as a patient . . . United: putting the hospital back into hospitality. Dr. Dao’s plight resonated because it so perfectly encapsulates the now-customary degradation of human dignity, morale, and will-to-live otherwise known as air travel in the twenty-first century.