Tantrums on the Tarmac

Treat people like babies, and babies are what you'll get


The programming execs at the Arts & Entertainment channel seem to think the public's appetite for reality shows is so voracious that we're even willing to watch ordinary documentaries. The new series Airline contains no celebrities, no courtships, no game-show rules—just a bunch of cameras recording the everyday Fear Factor of American airports. If there's an underlying message, it's that the only thing that might be less pleasant than traveling on an airline is having a job that forces you to deal regularly with air travelers.

I'm no innocent here. I will not bore you with all the details of my last flight. Suffice to say that it began with a five-hour delay, in a gate that lacked bathrooms and with a 45-minute security line to traverse if you ducked out to use the toilet in the check-in area. And while that much probably wasn't Continental's fault, the tragicomedy of errors that followed clearly was. Trapped overnight in Newark, misdirected across the airport and back, I thought we'd reached our low point when my wife, suffering from an increasingly painful flu, started to throw up while we walked. Then the baggage team told her they couldn't give us our suitcases and that she'd just have to wear her vomit-stained pants again tomorrow, and for the first time in years I lost my temper with someone who was neither a driver, an inanimate object, nor a family member with decades of experience pushing my buttons.

Memory has blocked out most of what I said to the woman behind the counter, but I'm pretty sure she didn't deserve it. She wasn't the one who locked up our bags.

Now, thanks to the miracle of television, I and countless other assholes can relive such moments every Monday night on A&E. Your flight's cancelled and you're angry? You missed your connection and you're angry? Some security goon pawed through your luggage and you're angry? It's all there, our misbehavior reflected weekly on the living-room TV. An airport's power relations are a complex dance: Aside from the bully boys of the TSA, who always have the upper hand and aren't afraid to use it, air workers occupy a double role. They get to play the imperious figure behind the desk, able to help or deflect the supplicants who entreat them every day. But they also play poorly-paid punching bag for any travelers who need a scapegoat for their travel woes, for their life woes, or just for their nasty dispositions. So the relative power of the bureaucrat and the relative powerlessness of the service-industry employee get wrapped together in the same package, then let loose in one of the least pleasant environments modern America has to offer.

One reason that environment is so unpleasant, of course, is that it treats travelers as children, keeping us in the dark about what's happening behind the scenes and stripping us of both freedoms and responsibilities. A system that infantilizes is bound to produce infants; men and women capable of behaving maturely at home or at work will suddenly erupt into embarassing tantrums. The results aren't pretty. But that doesn't mean they can't make for compelling television.