Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes | 3000 words
On Monday night, Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, sent an internal email to his staff regarding the incident on Flight 3411 in which members of Chicago Aviation Security forcibly removed a customer who refused to give up his seat when asked. In the note, Munoz offered an explanation of events and a defense of both his employees and law enforcement. The email ended up on Twitter where its contents were roundly excoriated.
Munoz’s email is, in its own way, a work of art; a triumph of the willingness to pass the buck. It misstates objective facts and shifts responsibility onto the passenger, David Dao, who ended up bloody and dazed after the encounter.
As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help.
What struck me as I read the email is how a careful and consistent use of syntax, grammar, and diction is marshaled to make a series of points both subtle and unsubtle. On Twitter, I referred to it as a “master class in the use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility,” and followed with a few tweets that highlighted its use of language to shift the blame on to the victim.
Yet this was no mere matter of poor design: It was always in airports’ very nature to welcome, shepherd, and display such collective action — passengers routinely clump up and board together, linger around baggage carousels in masses, and cluster and fume together when there’s a hiccup in the system. The protests were like a major wave of airline delays or cancellations, but instead of domestic flights in question, people were responding to entire ontological trajectories suddenly put on hold.
Then there is the intriguing way airways are navigated, using radio beacons and “waypoints”, spots defined by geographic co-ordinates or their bearing and distance from a beacon. These waypoints are typically given five-letter capitalised names that are supposed to be simple enough for any controller or pilot to recognise them, regardless of their first language.
Europe’s sky-mappers turn out to have taken a fairly business-like approach to naming their waypoints, though there is a TULIP off the Dutch coast and England has a DRAKE, for Sir Francis. Australians have had a bit more fun, naming points off their west coast WONSA, JOLLY, SWAGY, CAMBS, BUIYA, BYLLA, BONGS, in honour of the opening lines of the country’s unofficial national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda”. The Americans have just gone mad. Detroit has MOTWN and WONDR (Stevie was born in Michigan). Houston has a ROKIT for its Space Center. There is a NIMOY in Boston (where Leonard was born) plus several local culinary references (CHWDH, LBSTA and CLAWW) and SSOXS, STRKK and OUTTT for the Red Sox baseball team.