Everyone knows about the doctor who was forcibly removed from his place on a United Airlines plane when no one volunteered to give up seats to accommodate a flight crew traveling to another airport. Fortunately for the doctor, another passenger videoed the event, and the video went viral. The public outrage that followed is prompting congressional hearings, new rules within the airline industry and new laws regarding removal by police of an unwilling passenger.
I think it is fair to say that the reaction to the incident is one of total disbelief that such an act could happen here in the United States. The callousness and utter disregard for the safety of the man, incidentally a paying customer, are astonishing.
Yet here is another story, closer to home and less violent, of insensitivity to customers. I was riding the Long Island Rail Road home from Penn Station on a weekday afternoon, expecting the usual change at Huntington for Port Jefferson, when an announcement over the public address system advised us that the connecting train was arriving across the tracks on the south side of the station. We were told to use the stairs to cross over if we wanted to continue east.
It seemed a bit of an inconvenience until we walked down the platform to the stairway and found the entrance blocked. Turning around to find the next closest stairway over the tracks, I saw that some of the passengers behind me were using walkers or canes. As they saw the locked gate to the stairs, they became frantic. The next crossover was a half block down the platform. Did you ever witness people with walkers and canes trying to run? The sight is pathetic. And the rest of us didn’t look too graceful, huffing and puffing our way to try and catch the waiting train.
The stairs were steep to the top of the overpass, and the passages on the south side leading back down to the platform and to the parking lot were confusing. We ran by an elevator, and some of us pressed the button, but it took what seemed like forever to arrive. Once inside, we were confronted with different buttons that were labeled, each with an ambiguous letter. We pushed the wrong button and wound up on the ground floor. Breathless at this point, we rushed back up the stairs to the platform just in time to see the train pulling away. Those with the walkers and canes, as well as those of us too slow to navigate in time, perhaps a dozen in total, were left to wait the hour and a half until the next train. The moans were loud.
There is, of course, pressure on the engineers and conductors to keep to a schedule. A regular report grades the on-time performance of the LIRR, and there is much disgruntlement when the trains are habitually late. So there was reason for the train to pull away before all the passengers had crossed the tracks. But where was the caring? Some of the passengers were lame. Some were old. Some were just out of shape for a sudden dash up, around and down the granite stairways. It would have taken perhaps another two minutes for the rest of the group to reach the train.
Where was the respect for the paying customer?
Perhaps this sort of disregard is inevitable in a monopolistic situation. There is no other train line to use. There aren’t that many different airlines left in our country after the assorted mergers. Or is it something else, something having to do with our society as a whole? Yes, in many ways we have become more tolerant over the past century, more accepting of differences. We have also become more relaxed, less formal in our dealings with each other — and not in a negative way. But there are some aspects of previous generations that are sadly scarce. I could name a few: politeness, honor, civility, patience, respect. We rush around a lot, but I’m not sure we always get where we want to be. And if we don’t rush, we get left behind.