The Passenger in Row 20
My return flight from Nashville last week was already running about an hour late, and everyone surrounding me at the gate was anxious to get on the flight and get home. It was a packed flight, so when the last person got on the plane and there were no remaining seats--the flight attendants were confused. From my aisle seat on row nine row I could see the pilots, flight attendants, and other airline officials looking at lists, walking on and off the plane, pointing, and talking some more. There was obviously a problem.
Then the announcements began. No fewer than ten times the announcement was made: "This is flight 699 going to Chicago. If you aren't going to Chicago, you should get off at this time." Each time the announcement was made with more volume and emphasis. Then they started calling specific names: "If you are Jessica Klein, please raise your hand." "If you are Bob Francis, please raise your hand." After about 30 minutes of calling names and begging anyone who wasn't going to Chicago to get off the plane--there was still no movement.
This is where the Southwest Airlines "sit wherever you want" system officially broke down. Since there are no assigned seats, they had no way of knowing who was in the wrong seat. So the next step was to go through the plane, person-by-person, and check everyone's name off the passenger manifest. One official started at the front of the plane, and another at the back.
Sure enough somewhere around row 20 they found the offender. Turns out he was supposed to be on a plane to Columbus, not Chicago. How he was able to get on the plane with a boarding pass to Columbus, I have no idea. How he missed the ten different announcements about the destination of the plane, I'll never know.
But I do know what happened next. By now we had been sitting on the plane for an hour--which made us more than two hours late. The passengers were getting tired and agitated. So as the offender got out of his seat and gathered his belongings, the passengers jeered. They booed. They clapped as he was leaving and took a walk of shame past 20 rows and out the front of the plane. Some of them made sarcastic statements to him as he walked by...
I guess you aren't going to Chicago with us?
Don't come back.
Better get your hearing checked.
It was funny. I felt unified with the crowd as we were all experiencing the same emotion, and finally had someone we could pin our frustrations on. It was also sad. I wondered what this middle-aged man (who looked like any other business traveler) was experiencing in his life to have been so zoned out for the past hour. Maybe his wife just died. Maybe he just got fired. Maybe he learned his kid has terminal cancer.
As the plane finally got in the air, I closed my eyes and reflected on the whole experience. I was troubled that I was so easily sucked into the mocking vortex of the crowd. I didn't participate, but to anyone watching I would have looked like I was enjoying it. Truthfully, I did enjoy it. But now, I could only think about the passenger from row 20. I breathed a short prayer for him.
I wondered how many "Christians" were seated around me. Jesus said we will be known by our love for others. I'm not sure any of us on the plane that night would have been recognized as one of His followers. I know I fell short.
My two-hour drive from the airport would now get me home well past midnight, but I wasn't thinking about the late hour or the traffic or the Chicago skyline. Instead, I kept thinking about the passenger in row 20. And I was thinking about my own heart.
I'm determined to do better next time.