Flight or Fight
My husband and son took a New York-to-Milwaukee flight that was supposed to leave Friday at 11:29 a.m. The flight boarded after 4 and didn’t leave the gate until 4:40, and a half-hour later the pilot announced it would be another hour until takeoff. At that point a devout Jewish family, worried about violating the Sabbath, asked to get off. Going back to the gate cost the plane its place in line for takeoff, and the flight was eventually canceled. Was the airline right to grant that request? M. W.,NORWALK, CONN.
Situations like that can bring out the worst in people. But despite the seething resentment of a plane full of people — and despite, no doubt, his own carry-on valise full of hassles — the pilot tried to do the right thing. He went out of his way to accommodate one family’s urgent need.
He should not have done so.
Passengers bought tickets in the belief that the airline’s primary goal was to get them to their destination as close to schedule as possible. Once they are buckled in and the doors are locked, it’s not ethical to announce that the rules have changed and that a personal (as opposed to medical) emergency — no matter how compelling — might take precedence.
That would be just as true if turning back to the gate had merely cost a few minutes rather than doomed the flight entirely, since on a plane even a slight delay can ripple outward, from the people in the cabin to the people who are meeting them to the passengers waiting to board the plane for the next leg of its journey and so on. It would also be true if the personal emergency were secular in nature — if someone suddenly realized she’d made a professional mistake that might cost her millions, and she had to race back to the office to fix it.
If a religious practice does nothing to harm others, then airlines should make a reasonable effort to accommodate it. But though that family has every right to observe the Sabbath, it has no right to enlist an airplane full of captive bystanders to help them do so. By boarding a flight on a Friday afternoon, the family knowingly risked running into trouble. The risk was theirs alone to bear.
That is to some degree a culturally specific view, of course, born out of a constitutional tradition that enshrines religion as a matter of personal conscience. It might look different from another country — or from inside some of those religions. So I asked Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of the two-volume “Code of Jewish Ethics.” He said the situation puts two values in conflict: honoring God through his commandments and not dishonoring Judaism in the public eye, as might happen if the other passengers blamed the religion rather than the family’s risky choice for their inconvenience. As for the family in question, the rabbi —a frequent traveler — advises, “Once a flight has been delayed a lot, there are no guarantees, so be aware of that before, not after, you board a flight on a Friday afternoon.”