I was on a plane once that malfunctioned as it was trying to take off from JFK Airport in New York. There was a horrible screeching noise and some smoke and the thing skidded to a halt with its nose poking out over Long Island sound. Trucks pulled up alongside us and sprayed stuff. I don’t think anyone had been particularly scared because the plane was still on the ground. The only thing that worries people about planes is when they fall out of the sky; if they blow up on the runway, that’s sort of OK. It was a scheduled KLM flight bound for London and the Dutch cabin crew told us we all had to stay where we were while somebody tried to sort the plane out. Presently, through my porthole, I saw an elderly man in dungarees hitting one of the engines with a spanner. He had a hopeful look on his face.
The cabin crew handed out free non-alcoholic drinks and peanuts and told us we’d be going soon, not to worry. There were murmurings of disquiet from among the passengers which grew until several of us, including me, demanded we leave the plane this very second and get on a better one, one that worked. In truth, all I wanted was a cigarette — those were the days when you could smoke on aeroplanes, but only when they were up in the air, and certainly not with gallons of aviation fuel sloshing around beside you. The trolley dollies tried briefly to persuade us not to go, but without much conviction; they backed down in the face of our irritation. Eventually the cabin doors were opened and those who wished to leave were allowed to do so, on a bus which took us back to the terminal buildings. That was a good 20 years ago, and you cannot imagine such a thing happening now.
I mean, you can easily imagine the plane not working. But you can’t imagine, these days, the passengers being able to persuade the cabin crew that they should be allowed to do as they wanted, rather than what the cabin crew wanted. It is close to unthinkable. The police would be called and people would be arrested for being aggressive, or abusive, or for endangering safety; we would be lectured for being disruptive and threatening. More likely is that these days we would not have had the temerity to demand to leave the plane in the first place. We would have internally censored ourselves and put up with it, put up with the misery of sitting on a runway for hours and then taking off in an aircraft which had bits missing from it and had just caught fire. That’s my guess.
Indeed, I was on a plane quite recently which broke down on the runway at Heath-row, a Malaysia Airlines flight bound for Kuala Lumpur. It ground to a halt and everything went dark and then a blue light came on and a recorded voice intoned, in a horribly calm and soothing manner, the sort of tone I expect the doctor will use when he tells you you’ve got cancer: ‘This is an emergency. This is an emergency. This is an emergency.’ We were left there for hours until a man, possibly the same man, came alongside the plane and started hitting one of the engines with a spanner. A cabin steward told us there was nothing to worry about, it was just that all the electrics were broken. Oh, right, just that, OK then. But we all sat there, for hours, and nobody said a word. Nobody tried to get off, nobody got arsey. I could tell everybody wanted to get off, because that’s what they said when I spoke to them; they said stuff like ‘Christ, I hope they bring another plane, I don’t want to go anywhere on this one.’ And ‘Why can’t we get off?’ But they didn’t dare say any of that to the trolley dollies; they just sat there, schtum. There weren’t even free drinks. Or nuts.
On Friday 13 January this year, the cruise ship the Costa Concordia ran aground and hit a large rock, just as Celine Dion was playing on the in-house entertainment system. There were 4,200 passengers aboard. Some of the passengers asked the aquatic trolley dollies what the hell was going on and were told it was just a technical hitch, nothing to get concerned or arsey about. So they didn’t. Forty minutes after the ship had hit the rock, and with water flooding into the hull, one of the trolley dollies addressed the passengers in the ship’s lounge. She said this: ‘On behalf of the captain we’re kindly asking you to stay in your cabins — or, if you prefer, to stay in the lounge.’ People dutifully made their way down to their cabins. At the time of writing, 16 people are confirmed to have lost their lives, mainly the ones who had been trapped below.
I have the suspicion that ten or 20 years ago, this would not have happened. The worries of the passengers would have been voiced more vehemently, more angrily, more arsily; someone among the crowd, some obnoxious big-mouth, would have demanded to get off the ship in a lifeboat, and the others would have followed him. The trolley dollies would have given in because back then they were aware that their passengers wishes were to be respected and that they themselves were not tyrants whose views should not be questioned.
I am not for a second, incidentally, blaming the passengers for the fate that later befell them: we would all do the same as they did. We would all do as we were told, these days; it is how we have become. It has become ingrained in us that we must always do as we are told by people in some form of authority, no matter how tenuous a form of authority it might be, and no matter how patently obvious it is that they are talking utter rubbish. We are threatened with prosecution if we do not do so and spoken to as if we are five-year-old children who have thrown a little temper strop, idiots whose very existence undermines the smooth running of whatever operation they are involved in. No longer are trolley dollies and the like glorified shop assistants who are there to cater for our whims, because we’ve paid a lot of money to be treated properly. Instead, they are harridans who must at all times be obeyed.
Partly this is a consequence of 9/11, of course, and the fact that all stewards, cabin boys and the like are now frontline soldiers in the war against terror and thus imbued with a specious authority, and with fatuous legislation to back them up. Partly, though — and paradoxically — it is the continuing march of health and safety. This is always the default setting for the unformed tyrant: ‘For your own safety we would ask that you…’ But the problem is that it is almost never for our own safety; it is almost always for their own convenience.
Certainly this is true of the three examples I have cited here. With the two aeroplane mishaps it was simply a case of the airline companies wishing to save themselves as much money as possible and as little hassle as possible: keep the passengers on board, tell them it’s for their own good. Nobody’s health would have been jeopardised if a bus arrived to take the passengers back to the airport. With the Costa Concordia the injunctions to remain calm and do as you’re bloody well told may actually have greatly endangered the lives of its passengers. It was for the convenience of the company, and the deluded captain, that people were told to shut up and go to their rooms.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 28, 2012