Monday, September 19, 2016

OPINION: Criticism of American Airlines unwarranted

There are a great many legitimate reasons to criticize today's airlines, both individually and collectively. However, refusing to show a movie about a plane crash on their flights is not one of them.

The headline for an article in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, Sept. 17 is what got me fired up. It seemed to be taking American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) to task for choosing not to show Sully, the account of the miracle landing of crippled US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, on its flights.

Flight 1549 in the Hudson River
The article itself was more balanced than the headline but still had an overall shaming tone.

It pointed out that American, which has acquired US Airways since the 2009 incident, had worked closely with Director Clint Eastwood and his crew, made available an Airbus A320, space at a gate a New York’s La Guardia Airport (LGA) and technical advice for the filmmakers. Nonetheless, it would not be showing the film on its flights. “Tsk, tsk, American,” the article seemed to imply.

For reasons that should have been obvious to the reporter, airlines have long been loath to show any movies about air disasters. Most airlines even excised a four-minute exchange from the 1988 movie Rain Man, in which Tom Cruise’s character Charlie and Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond had a discussion about airline safety.

Every time Charlie would suggest an airline they might take to their destination, Raymond had a statistic about a crash in that airline’s history. Eventually Charlie said, “All airlines have crashed at one time or another. That doesn't mean that they are not safe,” to which Raymond responds, “Quantas never crashed.”

Unlike other airlines, Qantas ran the movie with the sequence intact.

But that’s the exception and, I would submit, that is as it should be.

While taking a commercial flight is statistically safer than driving to the airport, there is some inherent risk in flying. And not everyone is a comfortable flier, so putting a depiction of that admittedly minimal risk quite literally in their faces would not be a smart – or kind – thing to do.

In addition to being a frequent traveler, I am also a pilot with 3,500 hours at the controls. I’ve had my share of in-flight failures and unusual situations to deal with, so I’m pretty comfortable in an airliner with seasoned professionals at the controls, even when things go less smoothly than usual.

My wife, though, is a less comfortable flier than I. As part of my training, I have practiced more go-arounds and missed approaches than I can count but, as you might expect, she is the one who has experienced an actual go-around – in fact, two on the same flight – aboard a commercial aircraft. I have never had that experience, but isn’t that always the way things go?

Others I have encountered have also shown how ill at ease flying can make them. On one occasion, I sat next to a woman whose first flight - ever - was our 45-minute hop from Miami International (MIA) to Grand Bahama International Airport in Freeport (FPO). Her husband on her left and I on her right received equal treatment: her hands gripped our forearms so tightly on take-off and landing that I’m sure we both had bruises.

So, even though most of us are familiar with the story of Flt. 1549 and know that it ended almost as well as it possibly could, subjecting tentative fliers to such stark images would not be a kindness to them, or to their fellow passengers if the movie pushed those sensitive souls over the edge.

American, I say, “Good on ya!” You made the right call.

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