Taking Flight – A Father’s Angst

Filed under Family, Marc's Personal Blog, Parents, Personal | By

I just boarded a 6:45 am flight to Denver with my family. We were split up. Actually, Yan and Cade were put together. Ella and I were both assigned middle seats, across the aisle from each other in the same row. I guess that’s what I get for buying the budget economy ticket on United. 

It just never would have occurred to me that United would sit a 9-year-old child by herself. I knew we didn’t get guaranteed seats … I didn’t pay the extra $20 per ticket for the privilege of picking my own seats … and now I regret it. 

First, for me, traveling is all about the experience with my family. Even the airplane ride is an important part of that experience. Second, poor Ella, a child had to sit by herself between two strangers. And if that wasn’t enough to make me feel like I totally botched booking the flight, I then have to sit through the safety briefing (which should really be called the disaster seminar). 

I’m being told to secure my own oxygen mask first before assisting my child. United may not have noticed, but that little stretchy hose on the mask isn’t long enough to reach across the aisle. So, I am either unable to assist my child or I cannot remain in my seat to secure my own mask. No good choices you’ve left me, United, but I know which one I’m going to take. Yet I’m very uneasy at the thought of having to make such a choice and I’m rattled at the thought of jumping out of my seat, running across the aisle, and trying to get Ella’s oxygen mask on her in the midst of whatever emergency we find ourselves in, all while trying to hold my breath so I can take care of my daughter before I pass out from lack of oxygen. 

Then the flight attendant gets to the emergency exit part of the briefing which induces a vision of my little girl being trampled and me throwing elbows to try to get to her. But I’m quickly relieved of that imagery as the flight attendant pulls me into the terror that is the inflatable life vest. I’m not even sure I could follow the instructions on how to deploy  (and anything you have to “deploy” is inherently complicated, just saying) the darn thing. Ella’s in real trouble if she must do that for herself … or rely on me to do it for her for that matter. And do they expect me to rely on a stranger to do that for her in the event of a chaotic water landing? C’mon, United.

Ah, but then a moment of relief as I remember the whole thing is a big tease anyway (I saw “Fight Club”). Of course, from that point on I could only think of the plane going down without me even being able to hold my little girl’s hand or provide her any small comfort in our last moments.  And all this would confirm my ultimate failure as a father. Ugh!!

At any rate, that was the demented torture my mind put me through. Perhaps it’s just my innate morbidity as an estate planning attorney – always looking through the lens of “what could go wrong here” – but that was the path my brain took.  

United Airlines, this is not an open letter to call you out – though shame on you for forcing a young child to sit by herself, and for making her parent be apart from his child, and for the hypocrisy of your safety briefing when you separate a parent from his child, and for not making it clear you would separate a parent from his child if he did not pay the extra $20 per seat to choose those seats.

And shame on me for being a cheapskate and allowing my daughter and myself to be put in that position. BUT, there’s also a big business takeaway here for me. I have a large sign in our lobby titled “We believe”. It goes on to list a bunch of beliefs which are part of the culture of my firm, several of which are pertinent here–

“We believe cheap legal services are never a good substitute for value.” United, along with most of the rest of the airline industry, is on a race to the bottom: cutting services, competing to see who can be the cheapest, and losing sight of (or just not caring about) the customer experience. So, I had a negative experience on this flight, and I don’t feel like United particularly cares about me or my family. Substituting cheap service for value created a yucky experience and a negative association with that business. I never want my clients to feel that way.

“We believe nothing is more important than family.” We want our employees to know that. We want our clients to know that. We want to support both our clients and our employees in taking care of their families. We don’t want hypocritical policies or insensitive procedures.  We want everything we say and everything we do stand for and stand by family. 

“We believe being a parent is the most challenging, most rewarding thing in life.” I failed as a father, yet again (but luckily with no dire consequences- we just landed.). But I learned much this morning. Don’t trust every company to do what’s right (especially where your children are concerned). A good company makes it clear what they stand for and makes it a consistent message throughout their interactions with their customers.  Oh, and a dad has to forgive himself over and over again and sometimes thank his child for being brave when things don’t go as planned.

Thank you, Ella.