Flight Plan

During the past several years, I have taken dozens of airplane trips on various carriers. In doing so, I was shocked to realize that the pre-flight welcome-aboard script had changed. Instead of the head flight attendant referring to me and the other travelers as “passengers,” without exception, we were, greeted as “customers.”


I was shocked. I was horrified. Let me tell you why.

One of my all time favorite movies, based on a terrific book by Ernest K. Gann, is The High and the Mighty. It was produced and dominated by the huge presence of John Wayne. This film was not a western. It was not a war story. It was an airplane disaster movie—probably the first of the genre. In it, John Wayne plays Dan Roman, co-pilot of an airplane soon to be in peril. Dan is a limping, veteran aviator of two wars whose wife and son died in the weather-related crash of a plane that, years before, Roman himself had been piloting. He was also the only survivor of the crash.

At the beginning of the film, one of the flight crew says, “Dan’s the only guy I ever knew who had guts enough not to commit suicide.”

It is because of his resolve to face danger and (temporarily) take command, that Dan saves the plane and the lives of all the people on board. Or, should I say, of all the “souls” on board.

My favorite scene in The High and the Mighty, despite his brilliant and understated performance, does not include John Wayne at all. It occurs in the airport office before takeoff. The pilot, played with prophetic and nerve wracked tension by Robert Stack, is filing his flight plan. Stack says to his navigator, “All ready, Lenny?

Lenny replies, “All set to sign, Skipper.”

Then a flight office clerk hands Stack a manifest for his signature and says, “Twenty-one souls on board. The rest cargo. 73,000 pounds gross.” The clerk pauses for a second and adds skeptically, “I said it to Orville. I said it to Wilbur. And I say it to you. The thing will never leave the ground.”

I love this scene because of the three concepts that it articulates: One. The clerk refers to the passengers as “souls on board.” Two. He relates the reasonable assumption that man and machine were not meant to nor will they be able to fly. Three. Both man and machine can and do fly.

Let’s start with the last two.

That man has conquered the sky defies reason. Having done so was miraculous in 1903 when the Wright brothers invented the first airplane, and it is miraculous now. Think about it. Pick up a feather. It is light. Airy. So floaty that one would expect it to ride a gentle breeze upward toward the sun. It doesn’t, though. It drops to the ground. Like a book. Like a branch. Like a brick or a high-explosive bomb.

Now, think about the Empire State Building. Tilt it on its side. Put wings on it in your mind. Imagine it speeding down a runway and soaring off to the horizon.

This is old stuff. I know that. We are a world-weary, flight-savvy generation. We hop on planes without dread, and we pretty much assume that we will arrive safely. Usually, of course, we do. However, we should no more take our safe arrival for granted than one who is being operated on should take open-heart surgery for granted…even if his doctor has previously performed a thousand such similar operations.

A typical Boeing 747 weighs over 970,000 pounds (a brick weights five pounds). More than a century may have transpired since Orville took that first flight, but the miracle and magic of air travel is no less. A huge cargo and passenger-transporting vehicle still defies gravity, and in some ways it still defies common sense.

Now, let’s revisit the scene in The High and the Mighty that I mentioned before. When the office clerk tells the pilot, “Twenty-one souls on board.”

Those words perfectly exemplify what I used to love about aviation: The grave, terrible, wonderful responsibility that those in command assumed for the people in their care. So aware were they of this responsibility that they did not refer to their charges as customers or even as passengers, but as “souls.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind being called a passenger. That’s a sturdy enough concept to assure me that my safety is being valued. But “customer?” Come on. A customer is someone who shuffles through the tomatoes bin at the vegetable market looking for rotten fruit. A customer is someone who buys a sweater with a snag in it and negotiates with the cashier for a reduced price. A customer is someone who buys chewing gum or bath mats or nasal decongestant.

When I enter a metal cylinder from which I cannot freely depart, I am relinquishing control over my destiny To those who manufactured, maintained, and fly the airplane, I am entrusting the safe departure, transportation and delivery of my life. I am not buying chewing gum. I am not buying nose spray. I am a soul.

While we’re on the subject, might I suggest that if your physician, his receptionist, or his nurse ever refer to you as his/their “customer,” you take appropriate action. Before you change doctors, do, please, bop him (or her) on the head. And use one of the non-gravity defying objects that I mentioned earlier.

Not the feather. The brick.

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit: shellyreuben.com.

Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben.

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