On Airline Elites and Immanuel Kant and Doing the Right Thing


By Robert McGarvey


I have been talking with airline elites a lot in the past couple weeks, sorting out their willingness to speak up against the stunning mistreatment of passengers by legacy carriers – read United and American.

BA also merits mention for offloading a couple at a remote Portuguese airbase.  And Delta now has kicked a man off the plane fr using the toilet.

The more I have talked, the more I find myself thinking of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, a core building block in leading an ethical life.

With elites I have asked a simple question: since you have status with an airline, are you willing to use it to express distaste for how airlines are treating passengers?

What I have heard, again and again, is no, and “airlines don’t treat me badly.”

Enter Kant, an 18th century German philosopher who usually is ranked among the top five philosophers of all time (along with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and probably Descartes).  Kant has a lot of relevance to where we find ourselves in regard to airlines and he is especially relevant to elites.

Kant would like American passenger Tony Fierro who, witnessing an American Airlines’ flight attendant’s mistreatment of a mother, stood up and defended her.  Apparently the flight attendant grabbed the woman’s stroller, possibly hitting her with it and also hitting an infant, according to some eye-witness reports.  Fierro stood up, saying: “No, I’m not going to sit here and watch this stuff.”

He said to the flight attendant: “Hey, bud. You do that to me, and I’ll knock you flat.”

A video of the incident surfaced.  American has suspended the flight attendant and offered a profuse apology.  

Meantime, the union that represents flight attendants issued this statement: “There are really two stories here related to this incident aboard a San Francisco to Dallas flight,” the statement reads. “One, we don’t know all of the facts related to a passenger who became distraught while boarding a plane and therefore neither the company nor the public should rush to judgment.”

The union continued: “Second, it appears another passenger may have threatened a flight attendant with violence, which is a violation of federal law and no small matter. Air rage has become a serious issue on our flights.”

The union statement has been widely excoriated and, really, nothing more needs be said about it.

Except to point out that just maybe the attitude reflected in the statement makes it easier to understand the American flight attendant’s behavior.-

That’s also why we need applaud passenger Fierro.

Things have sunk to incredible lows in the air.

I get that flight attendants are overworked and – very probably –  dissed by their own employers.  I empathize.

But passengers, too, deserve better. A lot better than they are getting from the legacy carriers in the US.

So where are elites in all of this?

Nowhere to be seen or heard as far as I can tell. I’m not saying every elite I know has taken cover in the fray. But too many have.

They tell me, quite accurately, that they just don’t see themselves suffering such blatantly bad behavior, so what of it

What of it is the Categorical Imperative where Kant advises us to act only in such a way that you can will that action to be a universal law.

Do elites really want everybody just to shrug off the bad behavior many passengers are exposes to on airlines?

That is what they are in effect suggesting with their passive indifference.

The Categorical Imperative says: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law [of nature].”

That means protesting when a Dr. Dao is dragged off a plane in Chicago, or when a mother is apparently hit with her own stroller by a flight attendant.  Such behaviors just are wrong – universally wrong, by the way – and the right thing to do is to speak up.

Some elites have told me it just is not their character to make a public scene.  Fine. There is no necessity to emulate Fierro.  Write an email to the airline’s executives. Or write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Or past comments and thoughts to traveler focused websites.  There are many ways to get heard and standing up in the aisle and going toe to toe with an irate flight attendant is only one of them.

A non elite, coach class passenger does not have a lot of weight.

An elite with lots of miles in the bank does.

And it’s time to deploy the Categorical Imperative and do the right thing.


10 thoughts on “On Airline Elites and Immanuel Kant and Doing the Right Thing”

  1. I think airlines should have to plan in advance and things like last minute crews deadheading and booting off passengers is not proper operations procedures. Nor is grabbing people’s strollers in a violent fashion. However, the “court of public opinion” seems to hold the airlines 100% responsible and not blame any of the passengers. I do not see anything wrong with a dress code when travelling on an employee pass. I do not advocate clinging to a seat like a two year old when the airport police have been called in for passenger removal. And as to strollers, they don’t go in the plane, they get checked at the gate. Someone who is from South America and who is boarding a plane in San Francisco has actually very likely boarded a plane before and should know this. I think some things have to change, including the attitudes of some primadonna type gate agents and flight crews, but at the same time, some passengers have to wise up. The “bad experiences” that I see from day to day are relating to the absurdity of the small seat sizes – which are not addressed by these public facing issues.

    I’m certainly not going to stick my neck out for them.

    1. But I’ll bet if you’re abused by an airline employee or their thug cops, you’d want someone to stand up and say stop.

      I see a lot of passenger behavior that is just in poor taste, or outright crass. I’ve been subjected to another passenger’s attempt to be intimidating (it would have been amusing if he hadn’t been holding up the boarding process). That doesn’t give any airline employee a free pass to act just as poorly.

      1. Sorry I just don’t see myself getting into this sort of situation. I’ve been flying for decades. I plan for unexpected delays. I already know they are screwed up and have deadheading employees. I don’t make it into my problem. I try to reason with people and if that doesn’t work, I file a proper complaint later.

    2. I 100% agree…passenger conduct is half the issue. A flight attendant hitting a woman with a stroller (which was wrong) would never have happened if the woman passenger did not try to sneak the stroller on board in the first place (and then resist when told she couldn’t). There are many more patient, professional flight attendants than there are not. I myself could never do their job. As a passenger, what concerns is me is the continued self-focused attitudes of other passengers is rapidly ruining the goodwill that [most] flight attendants convey to us. If I was them, I’d dislike passengers, too. You are right, Bill…attitudes have to change. Not just airline staff…but *passengers*, also.

  2. For the umpteenth time, it’s time for minimum seat pitch and width standards. Flying Coach should not be painful.
    ALL customers — elite or not — should be supporting this!

  3. A road warrior with somewhere in excess of 4 million paid miles aboard U.S. based commercial airlines, I’ve both seen and experienced some crummy treatment by airlines. I’ve also been the beneficiary of some exceptionally kind, considerate, and professional behavior by airline staff. There are two take-aways from this: 1) How I’ve been treated by airline personnel (and people in general) seems largely a factor of how I’ve presented myself to them. You get what you expect to get. 2) To Robert’s point, I try to notify airline (and other travel partner) CEO’s of exceptional behavior on either side of the ledger, and have almost always found them to be responsive and grateful for the feedback.

  4. I notify the airlines of good and bad treatment. Can’t say I ever got return feedback from any of them, beyond the typical form letter thanking me for my comments. There also doesn’t seem to be any anecdotal evidence that they are listening to a word we are saying.

    If anything, the airlines and their employees’ behavior is getting worse. The only thing that has any remote effect is their embarrassment at being caught at it, and held up for ridicule in social and news media.

    Seat legroom and pitch back would go a long way toward improving the moods of most of us, but I won’t hold my breath on that happening any time in the next 100 years, UNLESS we develop an alternate transportation network like high speed rail or hyperloop. Until these airline people have competition other than amongst themselves, the situation will remain as is, or get worse.

    1. Like salespeople, they don’t read much of any email and comprehend even less. Lawmakers need to stipulate minimum seat pitch etc, it is the only way it will happen. They had to be the ones to ban smoking, they have to be the ones to fix size issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.