Visum Monachae…On Flying

Sister Edith Bogue

Everyone has seen the shocking videos of Chicago’s Aviation Police prying Dr. David Dao out of his seat so employees could have it. Passengers, seeing his injuries, screamed “Oh my God” as they captured the event. Dr. Dao ended up with a broken nose, two broken teeth, and a concussion.

At first, the CEO congratulated his employees for enforcing the ticket’s rule that any passengers can be bumped. When airline employees needed seats on that flight, some algorithm selected Dr. Dao as the person with least claim to a seat. He disagreed. The forceful eviction ensued.

My interest in Dr. Dao’s situation was personal. I knew I would be flying on the same airline in a few days. In fact, I wrote part of this column on a small jet battling turbulence over Lake Erie. I wondered how passengers would behave. The video of Dr. Dao’s body being dragged up the aisle went viral. Would passengers be more demanding and combative, I wondered, or more compliant?

Sixty years ago, my family flew to Europe. People dressed up to fly. The seats were wide and comfortable. The stewardess (sic) gave me a “Junior Stewardess” pin (boys got “Junior Pilot”). She gave us warm washcloths before serving a piping hot meal on real dishes. Flying was special, designed so that everyone would feel comfortable and safe. It was expensive; people saved up for the experience.

The incentives shifted as air travel became more popular. First passengers indicated a willingness to exchange fine dining for cheaper fares. When jet fuel prices started climbing in the ’00s, airlines sought to make every pound of weight pay for itself. They charged for extra checked bags, then any bags. They shrank the seats – even in first class – and packed them together. Flying became uncomfortable and tense for most passengers.

Is there a Benedictine perspective on recent episodes like Dr. Dao’s? One could fault the airlines for abysmal hospitality, or Dr. Dao for a failure of obedience for the common good. Neither answer is adequate. The problem existed before Dr. Dao’s episode, and it involves everyone on the airplane, passengers and crew alike.

We perceive ourselves as rational. In reality, we are embodied spirits. Our bodies react to crowded, tense, fast-paced situations by pumping out hormones that make us alert to threat and
ready to fight. Our needs seem important; we forget the common good. Flight attendants, despite training, have similar reactions.

St. Benedict understood human dynamics. He knew that people behave badly when tired, crowded, and stressed. He designed humane protocols for cooking, eating, praying, working, and sleeping that align with “the needs of nature.” Everything was arranged so that each person could both do and receive what she reasonably expected. He hoped that “no one is disquieted or distressed in the house of God.”

St. Benedict’s system requires monks to be patient with occasional quirks. Airlines expect everyone to exercise constant self-restraint. Clearly impossible. I’m switching to Air Benedict next time.

Sister Edith Bogue, a sociology professor at CSS, loves to observe human behavior from a Benedictine perspective. She is also vocations director for the monastery.