I must have been too busy writing and researching reproductive rights before Netroots Nation when this happened, because reading that would have made me really worried about going. The impromptu hostage crisises that airlines occasionally put their paying customers through are the sorts of things that cause me to really rethink air travel. What happened was this: A Continental ExpressJet that was supposed to make a quick 2 ½ hour trip from Houston to Minneapolis and get there by midnight on Friday, August 7th. But bad weather diverted the plane to Rochester, Minnesota, where the airline then forced passengers to wait over six hours on the tarmac, because they didn’t want to admit defeat and put everyone in a bus to get them to their destination, a mere 85 miles away. They let the crew off, even, because they had worked more than their legal limit, but passengers were held hostage, and worse, subjected to those horrible, misleading routine announcements that they’re going to leave any minute now, which you know, when you’re trapped in this situation, are bullshit. After 6 hours, they let them off. They didn’t leave until 8AM, and passengers didn’t get home until 9AM.
If you’ve ever been stuck for a long time on a tarmac—and it happened to me once for an hour and a half—then you know that it’s nothing like being on a plane that’s in the air. The air gets hot and stale, and the lack of soothing movement causes every baby on the plane to freak out. Parents start changing diapers, and the endless announcements about how you’re going to move any second now cause despair. At 6 hours, of course, their toilet was overflowing, adding to the stench. Sleep is out of the question, and the rules about electronic devices—plus the endless bullshit announcements—means that distracting yourself by watching a video is impossible. But most of all, the lack of hope grinds you down. You really begin to see how much of the human condition depends on hope, even in day to day ways. Even long, uncomfortable flights are easy to bear because you have a good reason to believe you’ll get to your destination soon, and you maintain the sense that you’re free. But once you get sucked into the tarmac cycle, all bets are off, as this story demonstrates. You begin to realize that they may not let you off the plane. You are just a number in their account books, after all. They don’t care how miserable they make you.
If you think I’ve overreacting, I’ll point out that Barbara Ehrenreich said much the same thing after Jet Blue forced passengers to sit on a tarmac for 10 hours. As she pointed out, the stories indicated that parents had to cannibalize their own clothes to make diapers for babies. After that experience, there was proposed legislation to limit the amount of time an airline could hold you hostage on the tarmac, but apparently the airlines quietly killed it. No doubt they had sob stories about their razor thin profit margins and cost-cutting, but if long tarmac delays are only .05% of their total flights in the worst summer storm months, then the minor expense of creating contingency plans shouldn’t be that bad. After all, they’ve demonstrated that they’ve figured out how to swap crew in these cases.
Right now, because of the health care reform debate, conservatives are trotting out hoary arguments about how unrestrained, unregulated capitalism is the best way to meet human needs. It’s tiresome to argue this point, in no small part because I suspect most people who make it don’t believe it themselves, but just know that admitting they put profits before people isn’t a great sell. But as this airline business shows, the corporate model is so dehumanizing to workers and customers that it drifts from treating customers like marks in an accounting book to openly hostile treatment. As I’ve said before, the capitalist model is one where the customer and the business are in competition for resources, with the customer trying to minimize money spent and maximize services, and the business trying to reverse that. When you deal with a business, especially one where the decision makers have safely shielded themselves from having to deal with you as a human being, you are the enemy. And sometimes, as these tarmac delays show, they have no problem treating you like a prisoner of war if they can get away with it. This doesn’t mean that the capitalist model isn’t the best one in many economic sectors, particularly if a business faces plenty of outside competition and the customers are allowed to retain their freedom—and the government is free to regulate against abuses. But in some industries, like health insurance, the lack of freedom induced by the fact that you absolutely need the product to live means they don’t only get to restrain you for hours on a tarmac. The warfare between customer and corporation is deadly in the health insurance industry.
I’ve repeatedly pointed out that conservatives only get away with bringing up the horrors of government bureaucracy because no one forces the comparison between government and corporate bureaucracy, but if you do, you realize the latter is by far uglier. Government bureaucrats may be more interested in covering their asses and filling out regulations than you’d like, but corporate bureaucrats have all that going on, plus they work for people that are out to get you. And by “get you”, I mean, get as much of your money as possible while providing the lowest amount of service. While there are obviously some government bureaucracies that, because of racism and classism, are stingy with services, at least you’re not facing people that work for people that are out to get you. Their bosses work for you, at least in theory. It’s definitely a lesser of two evils situation, but on the whole, the results are pretty good. Most government bureaucracies work fine, which is why Republicans are actually pretending that they want to protect government bureaucracies like Medicare, because admitting that they want to kill these services is political suicide.