Thursday, April 05, 2001

Air rage or heir rage?

They're calling it "air rage," but the fury that overcame a father at Newark Airport and resulted in a broken neck for an airline gate agent suggests another phenomenon to me: maybe "child management rage," the overwhelming sense of anger and desperation that overcomes parents forced to keep their children under control under circumstances that make it impossible. Like, say, a two-hour wait in a boring airline waiting area when the child is expecting to be at Disney World NOW.

In this case, the 18-month-old--perhaps wandering aimlessly as toddlers will, or perhaps feeling that if she could just get on the airplane, then Mickey would be within her reach--headed down a passageway leading to a plane. Her mother, probably chagrined that the girl was entering forbidden territory, ran after her. And the gate agent, charged with keeping people the heck out of there, shoved her away. The dad intervened and, depending on whether the witness was related to him or not, was either attacked by the agent and fell to the floor with him, or picked the agent up unprovoked and plowed him head first into the ground.

An inexcusable act of air rage? The jury didn't think so; it acquited the dad this week of charges that could have led to up to 10 years in jail. I'm guessing at least some of those jurors were parents.

Which is not to say it's ever okay to cause violent bodily harm to another. But on the other hand, the airlines have to understand that if you treat passengers like cattle, now and then you're going to get a stampede. And as furious-making as airline maltreatment is to individual passengers, it's exponentially worse for passengers traveling with children, who understand the concept of delays even less than their grownup counterparts do.

Coming up close to crashing in my list of flying fears is the fear of being stuck on the runway for hours on end with no food, no water, no toilets, no hope of release, as has happened to hapless planeloads from time to time in stormy weather. To be in that situation in the first place, and then to be expected to keep my impulsive, hyperactive son from running up and down the aisles screaming...well, I would probably be the one running up and down the aisles screaming. There are only so many toys I can carry aboard, only so many entertaining scenarios I can unwind, only so much cajoling I can do. If you go beyond the limits of my abilities to reasonably control my children, it's not going to be pretty for any of us.

So far, we have not been in that situation, though we've been close enough for me to guess what it might feel like. And I've certainly lost my temper in public on other occasions, with less provocation. I'm stunned, in retrospect, to realize how out of control I was. Never resorted to violence, but then, nobody ever physically pushed me around. Since I'm only 4' 10" and not exactly gym-trained, the likelihood of me picking some guy up and breaking his neck is slight. But they say that mothers can pick up cars if their children are trapped underneath, so who knows.

It would be nice if this case led airlines to reassess how they communicate with and service their customers, but my hopes aren’t high. Probably it will just make gate agents more surly, knowing as they do that jurors don’t hold their physical well-being and professional duties in high esteem. Truth be told, I would probably rather be trapped on that plane with that screaming child for hours than have an airline employee job that forces me to interface with irate passengers. Really, the more I think about it, maybe we should all just stay home. Travel is more trouble than it’s worth.

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