When you buy an airline ticket and board a commercial airline, you're paying money, sure. But you're also giving the airline your trust.
You trust that the airplane is well-maintained. You trust that you'll be treated like a human being -- maybe even like a paying customer. You trust that you'll be delivered safely to your destination, as close to on-time as possible.
And of course, you trust the pilots -- the people up front in whose hands you literally place your life. If they act like professionals and do their job well, as the vast majority of airline pilots do the vast majority of the time, there's very little chance of anything going wrong.
But sometimes people fall short. And that's why it's so utterly devastating when a commercial pilot falls as short of the mark as an American Airlines pilot allegedly did this week.
On Thursday morning just before 11 a.m. local time, a 62-year-old American Airlines pilot was arrested in Manchester, England. As the Greater Manchester Police force explained:
"Police received a report that an airline pilot may have been under the influence of alcohol.
Officers attended and a 62-year-old man was arrested on 'suspicion of performing an aviation function when over the prescribed limit of alcohol.'"
The unnamed pilot was supposed to fly an American Airlines flight 735, an Airbus A330-243 to Philadelphia -- which was scheduled to take off only minutes after the arrest.
While we don't have a firsthand account, it seems quite plausible the pilot was arrested either after boarding the plane himself, or at least after having reached the gate.
The flight was canceled. Passengers got 15,000 frequent flyer miles for their trouble according to Gary Leff at View From the Wing.
They'll also almost certainly be entitled to significant monetary compensation under a controversial European Union law. (If you don't know about this -- as I didn't realize until it was too late -- you'll wish we had it in the United States.)
I asked American Airlines for comment. They provided the following statement:
American Airlines is aware of an incident involving a member of its crew at Manchester Airport yesterday morning. The employee was detained and the flight, AA735 to Philadelphia, was cancelled.
Safety is our highest priority and we apologize to our customers for the disruption to their travel plans; all were rebooked on alternative flights. We are fully cooperating with local law enforcement and further questions should be referred to them.
These stories make waves when they happen, in part because they're fairly rare, thankfully. But they do happen. A Delta pilot was arrested in the Netherlands for allegedly flying while intoxicated just last month.
And, I wrote previously about the American Airlines pilot was arrested in Brazil for allegedly assaulting an American Airlines operations agent before takeoff -- resulting by the way in a 27-hour delay for the flight's passengers.
Again, we don't know the full circumstances, but to be perceived as intoxicated at 11 a.m. before flying a plane suggests a possible scenario where the pilot was still under the influence from the night before.
As human beings, it's reasonable to have sympathy (or perhaps pity) for anyone struggling with an alcohol problem. But it's also highly disconcerting when we're talking about an airline pilot.
The basic physics behind flight are all about lift and thrust. But the thing that makes it work as a business, truly, is trust.
And when something undercuts that trust, it can take a very long time to regain it.