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TIN EARS, TIN HEARTS AND MALAYSIA 370
By Joe Brancatelli
April 3, 2014 -- It is nearly four weeks since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 passengers and crew. No matter what else we believe about this very strange situation, we know in our hearts that we will never see those 239 souls again.
I thought about our lost fellow flyers Tuesday as I sat in the parking lot of a strip mall listening on the car radio while General Motors chief executive Mary Barra explained the decision not to make a 57-cent-a-vehicle fix that could have saved at least 13 lives.
And I couldn't help but drift back to the excruciating days immediately after 9/11 when airline CEOs talked more about getting a government payoff than about the passengers and civilians who were buried under the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania.
It was just four days after 9/11 when Gordon Bethune, then the chief executive of Continental Airlines, started the bailout drumbeat. The very next day, Leo Mullin, then chief of Delta Air Lines, went on television and uttered the phrase that will live in airline-executive infamy.
"The airline industry cannot be the first casualty of this war," Mullin said as first responders were digging in the rubble and searching for bodies.
Tin-eared clowns you might say of Mullin or Bethune or Barra or the officials at Malaysia Airlines who have bumbled, stumbled, obfuscated and prevaricated these past four weeks.
Tin-hearted bastards, I say. They are the very models of modern major industrialists. They put pennies in front of people. They calculate safety on a balance sheet. Then they claim that the cost of keeping customers alive--or even knowing where they died--is just a little too high.
I apologize for being so crude. But that's what I feel. Fuck the tin-hearted bastards.
I am a business traveler. I know bad stuff happens on the road. I understand that my fare dollar doesn't guarantee safety or security. More than that, I'm a New Yorker who has always accepted the assessment of the choleric subway bureaucrat from the 1973 novel, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: "What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents--to live forever?" I even got fired once because I wrote a column that said, simply, "We fly and, sometimes, some of us die."
I am a business person. I know that nothing is free and not every product can be gold-plated. I understand what goes on in conference rooms and budget meetings. More than that, I accept the pressures of the balance sheet and the need to keep investors and shareholders happy. I always demand that people who report to me show the same healthy respect for other people's money.
But I am weary of the Barras, Bethunes and Mullins telling me I am supposed to comprehend why spending 57 cents to save lives somehow doesn't compute in the boardroom. I am tired of the airline industry scrimping on basic safety protocols, losing aircraft and then shifting the cost of search-and-recovery operations onto taxpayers.
That isn't tin-eared. That's tin-hearted. It's time to stop to rationalizing it. Thirteen people are dead because GM wouldn't spend 57 cents a vehicle. Two hundred and thirty nine of our fellow flyers have disappeared without a trace because the airline industry thinks it's too expensive to keep in constant contact with their aircraft.
"God damn you all to hell," as Charlton Heston once screamed in Planet of the Apes. I am not as buff as Heston in his loincloth and I am nowhere near as eloquent. So I say "fuck you" to Bethune and Mullin and Barra and all the current airline industry types who revel in their greed and inhumanity and tell us they are only doing their jobs.
Know what it would cost to keep a nearly real-time, unbreakable connection to every passenger aircraft on the planet? Less than a buck an hour per plane, according to Inmarsat, the satellite operator that runs a similar service for the maritime industry. The other alternatives--streaming black box data live, for example--would cost more. But not that much more.
Inmarsat's maritime-tracking system is the 21st-century successor to regulations that came into effect after the loss of Titanic in 1912. Appalled by that tragedy, the world forced the shipping industry to act.
If you think the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is the airline industry's Titantic, you are wrong. Dead wrong. We've already had our Titanic. Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the South Atlantic in 2009 and 228 passengers and crew died. It took two years and cost $25 or maybe $50 million to recover the black boxes.
Airline apologists, who even now resist keeping track of our passenger aircraft, suggest the cost of real-time data isn't worth it because tragedies like Malaysia Airlines 370 hardly ever happen. Besides, they note, we eventually did find Air France 447, so what's the big deal?
Two disappearances in five years is not "hardly ever happens." But the airline apologists use the line because then the carriers don't have to pay for tracking technology or the recovery costs.
The governments we fund paid to find Air France 447 in the Atlantic. American taxpayers gave the airlines $5 billion for nothing after 9/11. We relieved them of the liability costs and funded their insurance. We gave them tax kickbacks. We even let the airlines go bankrupt, ditch their debts and dump employee pensions on us. We, not the airlines, pay for the TSA.
And we, not the airlines, are paying the uncalculated millions it costs to hunt, peck and guess in the search for Malaysia Airlines 370.
The airlines and GM and all the companies like them think this is how it should be.
Why spend 57 cents a car to ensure that 13 drivers wouldn't have died? Why spend a buck an hour per aircraft to ensure that we can find them when they go down and bring closure to the families of our 239 fellow flyers? It's just not worth it, say airlines and their chief executives.
Tin-hearted bastards. God damn them all to hell.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.