Topic: Business & Commercial

Trapped by Failure of Courage and Ethics: The JetBlue Flights

Ten JetBlue flights on a cold and icy night in New York recently found themselves full of passengers and unable to take off. Some had icing problems and were stuck on the tarmac; some were literally frozen to the ground at the gate. The hours crept by and the toilets backed up and the children began crying, and the planes continued to sit while the pilots informed the passengers that they were waiting for "instructions." Eight hours passed, and then the horrible truth became known: JetBlue was apparently going for the all-time record for non-terrorist air traveler imprisonment…beyond the near record in January by American Airlines Flight 1348 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas, which sat for more than eight hours, past the eleven hours some Northwest Airlines planes held their passengers in 1999. Alas, it was not to be. The ordeal would end, short of Guinness Book of Records territory, after only ten hours.

Ten. Hours. And so the Scoreboard must ask the threshold question that should always precede the ethical analysis of a fiasco: What in the world was going on here?

What was going on, and what went on in all of the past incidents as well, was a mass reliance on a popular rationalization for unethical and irresponsible conduct: "I have no choice." Procedures forbid planes from returning to the gate and releasing passengers. Pilots wait for instructions from air traffic control. No, those big inflatable slides are only for emergencies, and hundreds of people crammed like sardines onto a plane without functioning toilets isn't on the approved list. Stairs can only be used under strict regulations. There are no procedures governing interminable waits on the runway, so everyone just waited, while conditions got worse and people suffered. There was nothing to do, you see. There was no choice.

Except that there was, in fact, something to do: solve the problem. True, this would take some courage and initiative, someone willing to say, "Oh, to hell with the prohibitions and the red tape; this is insane! Let them punish me…I'm ending this." But the fact that nobody did that exposes an unsettling fact of human nature that has aided and abetted many of the greatest blunders and human tragedies in recorded history. People say that they care deeply about humanity, that they would never knowingly hurt innocent people. But when this supposedly sacred value, the most important value in ethics, comes in conflict with sacred rules and regulations that are likely to be enforced, humanity finishes second most of the time.

Law Professor Monroe Freedman relates a conversation he had with an anti-capital punishment activist who told him that he was frustrated because jury questionnaires blocked his acceptance onto juries in death penalty cases. Once Freedman's friend answered "yes" to the question, "Do you have any moral objections to the death penalty?," he was automatically excluded. Freedman pointed out to his friend that he had no business being frustrated, since he had an opportunity to demonstrate his priorities and had done so: answering a questionnaire honestly was obviously more important to him than saving a life by getting on the jury.

Similarly, avoiding a reprimand, a fine or other FAA punishment was obviously more important to airline personnel than helping their passengers. The pilots had a choice; they just didn't want to take it. They could have declared an emergency and found a way to get the passengers off the plane. After all, this would have become necessary at some point, if the delay continued long enough. What if the wait extended to 20 hours? Days? What if people were becoming ill and keeling over in the aisles? What if panicked passengers took the stewardesses hostage, or were turned into a maddened cult by a charismatic passenger and began preparing a human sacrifice to Faa, the Airport God? The pilots would eventually suck it up and decide to do what was right, risking the wrath of the FAA. If they would make that choice then, why not earlier? Why not end the ordeal after five hours, for instance?

The answer to that "why" is that the pilots and everyone else abdicated their ethical duties of responsibility, accountability, compassion, fairness, decency and kindness, not to mention common sense, rather than violate rules and regulations that did not apply to the unusual circumstances involved. These are the events where courage becomes the indispensable catalyst for ethical conduct, and American culture seems to value courage less and less with each passing day. Doing nothing, especially when it means following the rules, is risk-free: nobody can punish you for doing nothing when you "have no choice." Taking action that goes beyond the rules invites criticism, consequences, liability, insults…especially when the action doesn't work perfectly, or at all. Ask President Bush.

And taking action is exactly what ethical individuals have to be willing to do in a crisis, when people are being hurt and the rules are making the situation worse. They make a choice. They do something. They solve the problem, or try to. And afterward, when the problem has been solved, they tell the angry bureaucrats and administrators to take their best shot, saying, "Yes, I broke your precious rules, and in the same situation, I'd do it again."

The passengers on those JetBlue, American and Northwest flights weren't trapped by the weather, ice, airport traffic or FAA regulations. They were trapped by a failure of ethics, by people who could have solved the problem, and who didn't care enough to do it.

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