Musings on the Role of the Pilot as Symbolic Exemplar

Recently, I've been asking myself, "What kind of professional behavior should we expect from pilots?"

My wife, who is in her sixth-and-thank-God-last year of rabbinical school, is writing her thesis on the role of the rabbi. One of her big questions relates to the degree to which clergy — and their families — are held to a higher standard. It certainly makes sense that members of churches, mosques and synagogues might expect their religious leaders to live lives that reflect a certain type of ethical commitment and piety. (The limits of those expectations, their implications on non-hierarchical leadership structures, and the question of whether they're a good thing or not make up a chapter or two of my wife's thesis.)

Pilots are an interesting case. On one hand, they are simply employees of an airline, not unlike baggage handlers, gate agents, and customer service reps. They have a job to do, and like any corporate job, it's fair for their employers (and their customers) to expect that they carry themselves with a certain sense of professionalism when they're wearing the uniform.

On the other hand, pilots are special. They get titles like "captain" and they rank at (or very near) the top of a complex hierarchy of airline team members who get passengers from one place to another. Onboard an airplane, the pilot is the boss. Furthermore, their role goes beyond the technicalities of being in charge of flying the plane. Our culture has assigned a certain symbolic importance to them. Pilots are symbols of air travel and the airline industry as a whole. When a pilot screws up, it somehow reflects on how we all think of flying.

Case in point:

Today's "pilots behaving badly" news of the day is that an off-duty Delta pilot got himself in a bunch of trouble when he (allegedly) tried to use his private plane to run over some police offers. The story gets stranger and stranger (he gave the cops a fake name, he demanded fuel for his plane, etc.), but the point is this: a guy (who happens to be a pilot who works for Delta) got himself into trouble for generally being an idiot.

If a Delta baggage handler got into a scuffle at the local Wal-Mart would we care? If a United gate agent was running errands and assaulted someone in line at the bank would it make the papers? What if a tram driver ran someone off the road while driving her personal car?

I suppose there are differences. Pilots fly planes full of passengers, and a pilot with poor judgement may indeed be a very dangerous thing. (Of course, as Matthew has pointed out, a judgmentally impaired pilot is not quite as dangerous as we tend to think.) A pilot who has a beer before flying or who tries to run over cops at an airport is exercising poor judgement that may cause their bosses to ask, "Is the the kind of person I want to trust with the lives of hundreds of customers?"

I guess what bothers me is exactly what's bothering Matthew. These stories of misbehaving pilots (and I don't think I'm counting the guys who overflew the MSP airport — they exhibited gross incompetence at their jobs, even though passenger safety was never compromised) are presented in the media for their sensationalism, and they might easily convey by implication that air travel is unsafe, or that a specific airline hires unfit pilots. I don't believe those are fair assumptions to make, and these stories have given me absolutely no sense of pause before boarding an airplane.

Today's case may be cut-and-dry. This was a pilot misbehaving (and endangering public safety) in an incident involving an airplane, even if it was his own private plane and even if this mischief occurred on his day off.

But it makes me wonder... Would anyone question the flying capabilities of a pilot who frequently bounces checks? A pilot who frequents strip clubs? What about a pilot who frequents tarot card readers and psychics? A pilot who has a glass of wine with dinner on days she isn't working? What about a pilot who smokes pot on his day off? Or who is a compulsive overeater? Or a pilot who has been accused of domestic violence? (Let me be clear: I have no sympathy for anyone who commits domestic violence... I'm just wondering out loud about pilots.) What about a pilot who once visited a mosque where an imam delivered a fiery anti-American sermon? Or a pilot who attends Klan rallies?

(I realize that airlines — like all companies — have corporate human resources policies that are designed to address these sorts of situations. That's not my concern. An airline can fire and hire whomever they please, within the limitations of the law, as far as I'm concerned.)

I'm asking about the degree(s) to which the general public should feel bothered or disturbed about the outside-the-office behavior of a pilot, as compared to, say, the out-of-office behavior of a gate agent. Is it any of our business what an employee of an airline does on their off time? Maybe it is our business if that employees behavior demonstrates a lack of judgment that may (or may not) carry over to their ability to safely do their job.

Should pilots be held to a higher standard? Beyond behavior related to their ability to safely operate an aircraft, is it fair (or right) to hold up pilots as symbols or examples? And if so, where shoudl we draw the line(s)?