Airport stress can test our souls

October 16, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

The footage is painful to watch - there's no audio, but from the reactions of other passengers stopping to stare or cutting a wide swath around her, it's obvious the woman is screaming, just losing it, in an airport. Eventually, police officers approach and surround her, she either falls or is wrestled to the ground, and they handcuff and take her away.

The rest isn't on tape - some things, believe it or not, still occur beyond the seemingly unblinking eye of YouTube - but soon after this episode was captured by an airport security camera, Carol Gotbaum died, apparently strangled on the chain that police had used to secure her to a bench in a holding cell.

Details of the incident, which occurred Sept. 28 at the Phoenix airport, continue to emerge, and yet it remains profoundly disturbing - somehow both unbelievable and inevitable.

If you've flown much lately, you know that air travel requires strong mental health and an endless capacity for abuse - from the moment you step into an airport, you're often treated like a problem to overcome. Planes are purposely overbooked, counters are understaffed, you're lied to or kept in the dark about delays and cancellations, and security personnel seem trained to assume you're a criminal.

So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Gotbaum, who was en route to an alcohol rehab program, proved fatally unable to deal with the kind of airport snafu that we're all supposed to accept without a peep as part of the price of a ticket - she wasn't allowed to board a connecting flight that she was already checked into, news accounts say, because she arrived at the gate 25 minutes rather than 30 minutes before departure.

Gotbaum became extremely distraught at the prospect of not getting to the rehab center in Tucson, and even though other passengers - God bless them - offered to give up their seats so she could board the flight, the airline staff refused. Instead, they called for police.

There's something about this story that seems so familiar, if not in the specific details, then in the rage and helplessness that Gotbaum must have been feeling as she spiraled out of control. So many transactions today - whether trying to make connecting flights, or scheduling a repair, or dialing a customer service line that gets answered half a world away, if at all - seem designed to test your patience, your breaking point, your ability to not start screaming. If you've never yelled at the person behind the counter, or honked angrily in traffic or otherwise behaved badly under stress, well, all I can say is you should contact Al Gore because he has a Nobel Prize that should have your name on it instead.

Of course, in a perfect world, Gotbaum would have handled this more calmly; obviously she didn't, or couldn't. In a perfect world, someone that emotionally fragile would have been traveling with someone rather than on her own. But why, other than because they could, did the airline employees refuse the other customers' offers of a solution? Why not defuse the situation rather than let it play out, even if you think you're in the right?

People tend to live up, or down, to their environment, and airports seem to have become virtual Skinner boxes of human behavior. Throw thousands of people in a confined space, treat them rudely, sometimes even deprive them of food and water for hours on end, and, no surprise, someone who didn't start out in the healthiest of mental states suffers a total meltdown and ends up dead.

You've heard, or maybe experienced yourself, the horror stories of air travel these days. Imagine being on that Continental flight in July that was diverted to BWI because of a storm, the one in which passengers were confined to the plane, on the tarmac, for more than five hours - without food, water or working lavatories. When passengers protested, The Sun reported, a flight attendant threatened them with arrest and called police.

Much of the stress of flying these days is unavoidable because of the extra security measures imposed in the aftermath of 9/11. People have gotten used to being herded like cattle through various lines, keeping up on the ever-changing rules on what you can carry on board. Most people are pretty compliant, from what I've observed, even in the face of bad treatment - you want to make your flight, you don't have much choice but to put up with it. Airport personnel are probably under as much pressure as anyone involved in travel.

But what triggered the events in Gotbaum's case had nothing to do with security and everything to do with business - airlines overbook flights to make sure they don't lose money on no-shows, and too bad for you if you're squeezed out of a seat that you paid for. It's harder to accept something that's done for profit rather than security.

I don't know who is at fault - if anyone - for Gotbaum's case escalating from simply bad to tragic. Surely no one intentionally sent this woman to her death; no doubt everyone was just trying to do the job and cope with a difficult passenger.

And yet, perhaps it could have turned out differently if, at some point along the way, someone had just stepped back and done something that may not be spelled out in the employees' manual or in police procedures: simply treating Gotbaum as a person, not a problem.

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