Pilots, Passengers, and Power Politics

Many people have explored the economic factors leading to the beating of Dr. David Dao on United Flight 3411 last week. I want to address the political causes, as an instance of a more general political process.

By political, I mean the rules that United employees followed, invoked, and broke in the course of the incident. It is useful to ask where these rules come from and why they matter.

Although lots of early takes held that the rules allowed United to remove a passenger for basically no reason, there is a compelling argument that United broke their own Contract of Carriage and violated Federal regulations in the incident. Even if it is not a legally correct argument, in the eyes of a court, United likely will settle rather than take that chance. So we might never see a definitive answer.

Those early reactions were based not on close knowledge of formal rules, but rather general knowledge of an informal rule: that aircrew, especially pilots, have final and absolute authority over whether their passengers fly or not.

Savvy travelers know this, and use it to their advantage. People who fly with guitars or other large, valuable items know to ask the pilot’s permission to carry them on, rather than risk them in the cargo hold — even if the gate agent says otherwise.

On the other hand, this power is often used in arbitrary ways. Harper’s Magazine recently ran a list of reasons why passengers have been removed from aircraft for being or seeming Muslim. The list includes, among other things: “asked for a glass of water”; “asked for a second Diet Coke”; “saved seats for friends”; “read a book”; “solved an algebraic equation“; and “prayed for a safe flight”. In fact, passengers have been kicked off of flights for smelling alcohol on their pilot and reporting it.

We would not tolerate this caprice most anywhere else, except that we grant pilots extraordinary authority to make these decisions. Like the Dao case, courts might well find that pilots exceeded their authority and discriminated unlawfully in some of these cases. If nothing else, it should be obvious that a pilot who doesn’t get algebra is probably not smart enough to fly a plane safely.

The rule that gives pilots this sort of authority makes sense to us because we perceive flying as dangerous. In this case, pilots have a specific sort of power to ensure our safety, from their skill and training in flying the plane. We quite readily translate that capacity into power over us, the passengers.

There is a school of thought in politics that says people gain power over us because they take it by force; that the most powerful people, in the sense of their ability to use violence, are leaders in the natural order of things. This is wrong: almost always, people gain power-over from power-to. Even in brutally repressive regimes — like North Korea — the source of power-over is the power to manage the government apparatus.

Likewise, we do not let the biggest, meanest passenger decide who stays on the airplane or not. We give that power to the pilot, because we expect the pilot alone has the ability — the power — to fly the plane safely.

The problem is that power-to in a particular area does not always translate into a general ability to make good decisions about rules — again, North Korea. In those cases, granting power-over can make the problems we wish to solve even worse.

The Dao case and other lesser abuses point to this problem in air travel. It’s worth noting that our perception of the danger — the fear that legitimizes the pilot’s power — is way off. Not only is flying extremely safe, but the pilot is the most dangerous person on any airplane. Pilot error accounts for 60% of plane crashes; sabotage and terrorism only 9%.

Especially since 2001, we have accepted extreme incursions on our rights in the name of more secure air travel. But remember that pilots on four different aircraft failed to secure their aircraft that day; it was only passengers on United 93 who prevented their plane from hitting its target. And terrorists could have flown a plane into a building every Tuesday for all of 2001, and still not killed as many people as died in traffic fatalities did that year.* Yet we don’t accept nearly the degree of restriction and intrusion in our automobile travel, as we do in air travel.

The rule that pilots get extraordinary power over passengers makes less and less sense the more we look at it. Moreover, it is easy to imagine a better system: each airline or airport could employ a lawyer trained in aviation regulation and civil rights law to make those determinations at the gate, including those situations where passengers contest the flight crew’s sobriety. For in-flight situations with no sky marshal present, senior flight attendants could receive special training in those sorts of decisions, freeing the pilot to fly the plane.

This is a fairly simple example of a general difficulty we have in assigning authority. We over-estimate the extent to which particular power-to translates into responsible power-over, and we misunderstand the problems we need those powers to protect us from. When you scale this difficulty up to situations as complex as, say, a national government, the result can be profound dysfunction.

One example of this is Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services. Price trained as a surgeon, which is a certain kind of power-to. His success as a surgeon and businessman lead to his election to Congress, giving him a degree of power-over. On the basis of his medical and political credentials, he is now in charge of our national health care system, in all its complexity and moving parts. And it’s clear that he will use this power-over in arbitrary ways that harm, rather than help, the people under him. (You can puzzle out how this dynamic played in the Presidential election for yourself, I reckon.)

It’s not even that the wrong sort of power-to leads to power-over: there is also a strong bias in some quarters against anything that hints at prior experience or capacity to govern — against the ‘Washington insider’. The result is that our election systems work against the sort of power-to that translates into responsible power-over.

Some political theorists — including me — think we could do better by selecting our representatives by lottery, the way we do with jurors. Not that lottery is the ideal system, only that it is better than the one we have — especially in expanding representation across gender, minority, and class lines. Crucially, a lottery does not depend on our ability to correctly interpret power-to.

That doesn’t mean I’d prefer a lottery to select my pilot. I’m more interested in pilotless aircraft, and when that happens we will need to have the same conversation about who has power over passengers on commercial flights.

Key to that conversation is appreciating the difference between power-to and power-over, and our understanding that one does not always translate well into the other.

* Note to show my work: on 9/11, 2,996 people died in four plane crashes, for 749 per crash. By comparison, 42,196 people died in car crashes in 2001. That divided by 749 gives 56.3…. so even with a plane crash per week and three extra the week of 9/11, traffic was still deadlier by a margin of 1,001 deaths.

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