Near Logan Airport - Airplane Coming in for La...

Image by The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

The first of my flights left a half-hour late, but arrived in the connecting city only two minutes late. Great, it won’t be a problem reaching my gate for the next flight–so I thought. The plane remained on the tarmac for almost thirty minutes before a gate was available, and it took another ten minutes for the jetway to pull up and for the doors to open. Ten minutes remained to make it to the gate for the final flight. Of course I was at the far end of one terminal with two more terminals to go. I arrived two minutes after the flight time. The agent informed me that the flight had closed eight minutes early to make sure it took off on time. The next two flights were full. I was on standby for the next flight, and after seeing someone else in the chain of employees, a flight after that was guaranteed. Everyone showed up for the standby flight–how many times does that happen. So I waited for the 5:55. It was late, and didn’t leave until 8:20 p.m. I arrived at my destination city at 11 pm, got a cab to the hotel, and finally put my things in the room. By then I was so hyper I needed a drink at the bar. Then I still couldn’t get to sleep until after 2:30 a.m., in plenty of time to get up bright and early to attend an 8 am session at the conference–riggghhht….

Airlines have been involved in some well-publicized incidents recently in which planes stayed on the tarmac for two to three hours with no bathrooms available and with the plane getting hot inside. Obviously the passengers were hot and were suffering from other…discomforts. This has lead to a movement for passengers’ rights, since when these things happen the passenger is powerless and is at the mercy of the airline.

I have never cared for rights language; even the theory of natural rights is based on an overly individualistic view of human nature based on the myth of the autonomous, isolated individual. Natural law seems more reasonable to me. Yet the airlines are still behaving in a morally reprehensible way, not because of a violation of abstract “rights,” but because they are treating human persons as mere means to profit and not as people who should, by their very nature, be treated with respect. This may sound like a Kantian point, but the idea of human dignity is present in the old natural law tradition stemming from the Stoics, Augustine, and Aquinas. People are not mere cogs in the machine and should not be treated as mere means to profit. “They’ve paid their plane fare, so it doesn’t matter if they get too hot, have to go to the bathroom when there is no bathroom available, and miss their connecting flights. People who were supposed to make business presentations might miss their meeting time. Academics scheduled to give a paper might miss their session (this happened to me three years ago; thankfully I arrived this time at my destination two days before my presentation). Even worse, some people may miss a loved one’s funeral or the last breath of a loved one. When airline executives consider people in the abstract, they seem to have no feelings about the real people who are hurt by their policies.

What is the answer? More federal regulation? Generally such regulation does more harm than good, however well-meaning it may be. However, the large number of flights at the busiest airports does create a safety concern, and safety can be regulated by the FAA. My own thoughts on this matter is that from the very beginning of training of future business leaders, there should be an emphasis on character development. Obviously if someone has already lost his virtues, this will do no good. But in people who have a conscience, in-class exercises on empathy using real cases may educate students’ moral imagination so that they can put themselves into the shoes of other people. Businesses, including airlines, must be careful to ensure virtuous leadership. If they do not, then the airlines may accrue further federal reglulation whether or not airline executives want it.