I was stunned when I read Bob Greene’s Op/Ed piece Was It Real for You, Too in the New York Times this morning.
He describes a Southwest Airlines flight midway between Chicago and its destination Columbus, Ohio during which the captain tersely informed the passengers that the plane was turning back to Chicago. Apparently the plane, although flying perfectly, had developed a problem with an angle of attack measurement device on the exterior of the plane. But that wasn’t explained to the passengers.

No banter from the cockpit; no more word on what was transpiring, which made us all understand that the crew members had their hands full. I looked around the cabin: most passengers stared straight ahead; some, eyes closed, appeared to be praying; many held hands with family members, or clutched the arm rests.

After a tense flight in the reverse direction and an uneventful landing in Chicago, as the plane

pulled up to the gate, and – before the captain could tell us what had gone wrong – four people entered through a jetway. One held a television camera; another began handing out release-permission forms.
The captain – referring to the camera crew – told us: “They’re ours.”

It turns out that a reality show, Airline, which runs on the A & E cable network was on hand to film the incident in the hopes that footage could be had of passengers panicking, having angry outbursts about missing important engagements, or behaving in other ways the show’s audience would find entertaining. As Mr. Green reports:

it had happened just that swiftly. The realness of the trepidation we had felt in the air had seamlessly been turned into reality, that parallel but separate new state. The clammy uncertainty that had filled the plane was even now being packaged as entertainment, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

The whole thing makes me wonder why the plane turned back to Chicago instead of forging ahead to Columbus, its destination. Mr. Greene wrote that the plane was almost halfway there, so why did it turn around? If the emergency were critical enough to demand an ASAP landing, I’m sure there were airfields closer than either Chicago or Columbus. If the situation weren’t that emergent, then why not fly on to Columbus? If there is a better maintenance/repair facility in Chicago that would be understandable, but I doubt that was the situation. So why did they turn back?
I don’t like to think like this, but the whole situation is so bizarre I can’t help but wonder if they went back because that’s where the A&E camera crew was?
Reality shows are okay, I guess, if you like that sort of thing. But in all the reality shows I’ve ever seen, the contestants (or whatever they’re called) have signed up for whatever “reality” it is they’re enduring for the entertainment of the audience. In my opinion, unbidden “reality” such as that Mr. Green describes is a little beyond the pale.

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