I keep thinking about Carol Ann Gotbam, the woman who died in airport custody in Phoenix after she missed a Mesa Airlines connection from New York City to Tuscon. The story is so complex that it’s hard to pick the one cause for what I consider an unfortunate tragedy caused by unfavorable factors that converged at exactly the wrong place and time. Mental illness, bad timing, harried airline employees trying to clear up a backlog of overbooked flights, security who perhaps assumed that she was just angry and acting out instead of mentally ill? Missed connections? Lack of skills in being able to dissect the causes for human behavior? Sometimes the right decisions at the right time are made.
Several years ago, when we were flying back from Singapore on our way to Albuquerque, New Mexico, we missed our Albuquerque connection in Denver because our plane was late getting into San Francisco. We’d already gone through Tokyo. Then, once were were on the Denver plane, the plane had to turn around because a woman was becoming increasingly agitated, thus it was unsafe to continue the flight. When she boarded the plane, I noticed that she kept telling the flight attendant that she didn’t feel well. He assured her that all would be fine. We taxied out for the take off and then taxied back to the gate with the explanation that there was a sick passenger on-board. I could see an ambulance and a fire truck at the dock waiting when we got to the gate. As she was heading down the steps she was hitting herself in the head. When I told my husband this, being the sympathetic fellow that he is, he said, “I could hit her myself.” We had to wait for a fuel check before we were clear to go.
I’m happy that the attendants finally listened to her and that her safety, as well as ours became more important than us making up lost time. Who knows what the flight would have been like if the plane took off?
Another time when we were flying out of Albuquerque for Cleveland a couple had missed their connection and was arguing with the gate person about getting on the plane. For some reason they were on a time crunch. We just happened to hear the disagreement, and intervened, offering to take the later flight. The gate person agreed to make the switch. At first she was reluctant, it seemed, because perhaps this was like rewarding bad behavior. As my husband said, “Hey, would you rather have happy us with our $300 vouchers sitting here for two hours or angry them?”
There have been moments in my travels where I felt like I might lose my mind, but I had the wits to keep it under control. Getting on an airplane is an act of faith. For me, it’s not that I’m afraid of crashing, but I think just the tiniest bit about getting somewhere in the world far away from where I live and having a heck of a time getting back if anything goes wrong. When things start to go wrong, staying calm when things don’t work well is always the best strategy. But there are people who fly who are fragile folks–folks who may be at their wits end.
With air travel becoming generally more stressful than it used to be and security being more heightened, it does feel like there are recipes for disaster. I’m not sure what the solution is, but one is to avoid making assumptions about bad behavior. On the part of the passengers, being able to calmly state how you feel in a situation and being heard makes a huge difference. Once when I missed a connection from La Guardia to Cleveland by five minutes because I got on the wrong subway, the check-in guy chastised me for being late and after a heated argument from me, he rebooked me. After I left the counter I felt more and more angry for his attitude towards me. I didn’t think he would have talked to me that way if I was a business man in a suit and a tie. I thought about what it was that really was bothering me and instead of stewing, I went back to tell him how I felt. I was calm, but told him that perhaps he doesn’t need to pass judgment on passengers who show up late because he has no idea what they might have gone through before they hit the airport. If he had been sympathetic we could have both felt good in our interaction instead of feeling badly. He apologized and I felt better. I smiled, he smiled and the afternoon perked up.
In the case of Carol Ann Gotbam, for whatever reason, she was unable to not behave badly and the people around her were unable to stop a runaway train. For an account of what happened in Carol’s life to put her at the airport at that time, check out this article. Here is a helpful read from the psychiatric Bulletin about traveling with a mental disorder.