Thursday, August 14, 2008

Encouraging Dishonesty

Tibor R. Machan

Recently I have become a genuine frequent flier. My miles keep accumulating at various airlines and I am making good use of them upgrading to first or business class on some of those very long trips I have been taking of late.

As anyone can imagine, flying after 9/11/01 hasn’t become very enjoyable, even when one is fortunate enough to get upgraded or well enough off to buy the expensive seats. A most annoying part of flying is the wait in those security lines, especially if one has any kind of malady involving standing or ambling about. (I do!) OK, perhaps it is no big deal to experience such inconveniences and displeasures. Things could be worse or, as the Hungarians have been saying since the 16th century, “Több is veszett Mohácsnál” (“More was lost at Mohacs”), the place in southern Hungary that got wiped out by Turkish forces partly so as to demonstrated to the Austro-Hungarian leadership that the Turks had muscle.

Anyway, as I was standing around in Frankfurt some days ago, on my return trip to the US, I noticed something that had escaped me thus far. Airline personnel routinely lie about when the plane will be leaving, when boarding will begin, and other scheduling matters. On several occasions in Frankfurt it was announced that our flight will be ready to board in five or ten minutes when, in fact, thirty or fifty minutes went by before any passengers could make a movement toward the plane.

As we stood cooling our heels--a practice I am not very good at--I noticed that there were dozens of children among the passengers, some too young to know what was happening but quite a few able to tell that the announcements made by airline personnel were very far from the truth. Repeated claims about how in a moment we will be moving aboard were simply followed by more such claims but no movement forthcoming. This couldn't be missed by the kids, I am certain.

I was personally annoyed with the delays, of course, but it occurred to me that here is an instance of adults seriously influencing children to accept prevarication as the norm. Why, if it is OK for these uniformed men and women to keep misleading hundreds of people should a child take it seriously when implored to tell only the truth?

Come to think of it, such setting of bad examples surrounds children in many areas of their lives, all the while they are being urged to be honest. Doctors order them to come to their offices at a given time only to make them wait at least a half an hour before they get to be seen. And not just children. We are all taught to tell the truth, at least in church and by various people who preach at us about how we ought to act. Yet we are also clearly aware that the very people who give us these instructions make a practice of not living up to what they say. Maybe a good many folks are willing to give these liars a break, consider that circumstances may not make full honesty possible, punctuality a reasonable expectations. But many could well get the impression that honesty itself is simply unimportant to many who speak to us. And these folks tend to be ones in positions of responsibility, even authority, like the airline personnel who unhesitatingly tell us lies. Maybe they, in turn, are being influenced by politicians who make it a habit to lie to us!?

Well, you might say, what can they do. After all, they are facing situations of uncertain information all the time. Yet I don’t think this will do as any kind of excuse since such situations can be noted--there is no great difficulty in adding to what one announces that these are simply estimates and it is quite possible that the delays will be longer. It appears, however, that airline companies haven’t yet figured out just how to communicate honestly and effectively with their customers. They probably do not want to fully disclose it when something delays a flight that requires mechanical repair or supervision--such information, they may be thinking, will only upset fliers. So let’s lie to them, instead. (The Frankfurt-to-Dallas/Forth Worth flight was delayed, I later learned, because on the flight over from the US an emergency landing had to be made in Bangor, Maine, after smoke started pouring from the fuselage. Turned out, it was only some trouble with the audio-video system, nothing major, but from what I gather this was not deemed to be suitable information for the waiting and increasingly irritated passengers.)

As technology races ahead and we eagerly embrace it for all the help it can offer us, it is not always easy tell just how to keep up with ethics, too. Cell phones, answering machines, voice mail, etc., and so forth--all these require us to apply the ethical principles of human life intelligently and competently. Even if we are making announcements to waiting passengers at airline terminals.