DEATH AND LIFE ON THE ROAD TODAY
By Joe Brancatelli
February 13, 2009 -- As the shock of last night's crash of Colgan Air/Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo began to wear off, we learned a little bit about the human aspect of the tragedy.
There was the woman who always flies Flight 3407 home to Buffalo on Thursdays--except last night, when she was on a different plane. When she reached home, she found worried messages from friends because they knew she always flew 3407 on Thursdays. And there was the woman whose husband died on 9/11. She was on Flight 3407 so she could get to Buffalo to celebrate the endowment of a scholarship in her husband's name at his old high school.
It's a thin line between life and death on the road and, ironically, it's the topic of the comments and related columns I posted yesterday, just hours before the crash.
We never know where that line between life and death on the road will be drawn. We're not in control of it. And we never know from flight to flight, day to day, business trip to business trip, which side of the line we'll be on.
Yesterday afternoon, when this collection of columns posted, I was writing about the road from the life side of that line, talking about the life-affirming events surrounding US Airways Flight 1549. Today, just hours later, after 50 people perished in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, the same columns must be viewed from the death side of the ledger.
It's that arbitrary, fellow travelers, and, if we live our lives on the road, we should never forget that sobering lesson.
LIFE AND DEATH ON THE ROAD YESTERDAY
February 12, 2009 -- Captain Chesley Sullenberger and the stalwart crew of US Airways Flight 1549 have been all over the media this week and I fervently hope they are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame.
Who deserves the adulation more than they? Two cool pilots and three crack flight attendants who saved 150 fellow travelers. They received the key to New York City and I know they have the key to our hearts.
And can we please not get into the silly argument over whether the happy ending of Flight 1549 was a "miracle"? When someone calls it miraculous, it does not mean that we think any less of the skills and the preparation of Sullenberger, the crew, the air-traffic controllers, the first responders and everyone else who had a hand in the rescue. The miracle--the divine intervention, if you will--is that everything went right, that every one of these brave, skilled people somehow was at the right place at the right time when their skills and their bravery and their coolness and commitment were needed.
The world is full of brilliantly trained people who will react superbly in a time of crisis--but who never face that moment. And the world is full of people who can never measure up in a time of crisis--but who are nevertheless thrust into that one situation they can't handle.
The miracle, fellow travelers, is that the crisis of US Airways Flight 1549 and the right people found each other.
I've been thinking a lot about that "miracle" in the days since US Airways Flight 1549 splashed down in the Hudson River on the afternoon of January 15. The line between life and death on the road is thin indeed. And there but for the grace of god--whatever god you believe in, whatever cosmic entity you may embrace--we all go.
Although we've never approached it quite so bluntly, the line between life and death on the road is something we've discussed many times over the years. I've collected eight of those columns from the last decade below.
Give some or all of them a read in light of the events of the last month. I think some will remind you of tragedies that perhaps we would have preferred to forget, but shouldn't. Some will jog your memory of the times when a potential tragedy turned into a moment of shared "victory" for those of us who live our lives on the road. A few are actually well written (something that always surprises me) and a few perhaps miss the exact texture and mindset of the moment.
But all of them are true--at least true in the sense that they were honestly crafted attempts to capture what we were thinking and feeling when we all walked right up that very thin line between life and death on the road.
June 3, 1999: EVERY CRASH DIMINISHES US
In the end, after all the words and all the pictures, it is very simple: Every crash diminishes us. On a day when a plane goes down and fellow travelers die, all of us who live our lives on the road feel empty. We know that our lives, such as they are, have changed forever--and not for the better. We know that nothing will ever be the same. When American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed in Little Rock, we all had to go on the road the next day. We had to take our fear, rational and irrational, and our concerns, logical and otherwise, and bury them at the bottom of our carry-on bags.
November 4, 1999: WE FLY, AND SOMETIMES, SOME OF US DIE
Just months after Little Rock, EgyptAir 990 disappeared over the Atlantic. All you needed to hear was that EgyptAir Flight 990 had disappeared from the radar and you knew. They were all dead. All gone. One more flight goes missing over the Atlantic and you knew right away there'd be no miracles. TWA 800. Swissair 111. EgyptAir 990. All dead. All gone. That's just the way it is. We fly and, sometimes, some of us die. Yet one man had gotten off the plane. And what were the odds that a consultant on airline-disaster notification would be that disembarking passenger? There's that line between life and death on the road again.
February 1, 2001: A FUNNY KIND OF CLOSURE
I heard it on television in my hotel room as I was packing up my briefcase and my laptop. It had come like a thunderbolt from the past, incongruously sandwiched between speculation about a Federal Reserve rate cut and a Super Bowl rehash. The TV said that the three Scottish judges presiding over the Lockerbie trial promised to announce their decision sometime during the morning. Lockerbie. When was the last time I even heard a frequent flyer talk about it? And what a funny kind of closure the court's ruling seemed to be.
January 7, 2003: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (ON THE ROAD)
My wife and I always spend Christmas Eve in a fancy New York hotel and live the lush life over the holidays. But not this particular year. My wife was 5,000 miles away, stuck in a shabby motel and shuttling to a hospital to care for her ill father. I was trying to catch up, flying an impossible, three-flight, continent-spanning, ocean-hopping Christmas Day itinerary. My mood was foul, to be sure. Yet everywhere along the way I encountered kindness and holiday cheer and people who went out of their way to help those of us who live our lives on the road.
January 13, 2005: LIVING IN THE BUBBLE OF BUSINESS TRAVEL
We all live our lives in the bubble of business travel when we're on the road and I hate it. It makes us selfish and hard and concerned only about the menial details of our own lives. Most of the time, we don't even know we're being selfish and blind because we have no idea of what's happening in the world while we are on the road. It is the price we pay for the life we lead. But it stinks.
February 17, 2005: THE WILLY LOMAN IN ALL OF US
Business travelers are not Willy Loman. Business travel is too expensive for companies to send anyone but their best and brightest on the road. Frequent flyers represent the American Dream. We live our lives on the road to create value, to create jobs, to create better lives for ourselves, our families, our companies and our country. So how come, a week after the death of Arthur Miller, the playwright who gave us Willy Loman, the miserable, pitiable traveling salesman from Death of a Salesman, I'm thinking that there really is a little Willy Loman in all of us?
August 5, 2005: SETTLING FOR A MIRACLE
At about noon on the day nobody died in an Air France plane crash at Toronto's Pearson Airport, I had written myself a note as a teaser for a future column. "What," I scribbled, "would it take to make life on the road fun again?" Five hours later, "fun" was off the table. We all joyfully settled for a miracle. The Miracle of Air France Flight 358. Against all of the odds and all of our past history, everybody lived. Everyone got out. It doesn't get better than that on the road. Fun, after all, is probably too much to ask for. I think we'll all settle for a miracle.
January 17, 2008: SIT DOWN. SHUT UP. BUCKLE UP.
About a dozen people were hurt when a jet crash-landed at London's Heathrow Airport. But almost as many were hurt a week earlier when a jet flying over British Columbia ran into sudden difficulty due to turbulence or computer failure. All the folks injured were hurt because they weren't wearing their seat belts. So I ask: Do some of us have a death wish? Why can't we just sit down, shut up and buckle our belts? Next week, we need to talk about cabbages and kings and primary swings and you need to be alive after your next flight to be a part of that discussion.
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 © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.