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Question 122: Should a pilot resign to avoid involvement in the airline’s immoralities?

The air transport business used to be cleaner than most, and the airline I work for as a pilot used to be among the best. Deregulation changed all that. Unrestricted competition resulted in a rising tide of red ink, and that led management to cut corners and use all sorts of questionable tactics to reduce costs and increase the load factor.

Six months ago, our maintenance department was nailed for several violations. Naturally, management said we were not guilty, promised to prevent any future violations, and paid the fine. But I hear on the grape vine that maintenance is still cheating, and, assuming that is true, it is frightening. Also, twice in the last six weeks flights were delayed, one time more than three hours, while we waited for freight to arrive and be loaded. But I was ordered to tell passengers there was a problem that prevented closing the cargo door.

Marketing also has changed. We advertise reduced fares, but often their availability is so limited that the advertising is a classic case of bait-and-switch. And to fill as many seats as possible at the highest possible prices, clerks are now trained to answer callers’ questions in ways that come very close to lying.

Recently, each seat in the first and business class sections of the planes I fly has been fitted with an individual video monitor. Passengers have a choice of movies, including X–rated ones. At the same time, by manipulating flight-crew schedules, the company is staffing those sections with female flight attendants with the least seniority, so that they are generally more vulnerable to exploitation besides being younger. The uniform these young women used to wear has been replaced with a sexier one, and they have been motivated—by a so-called reward-for-excellence program under which passengers rate flight attendants—to put up with what would be regarded as sexual harassment in most other jobs. If the trend keeps up, the captain of an airliner soon will be the proprietor of a whore house.

I find the whole business so disgusting I have been thinking of quitting. Lacking an acceptable employment option, most pilots would find that virtually unthinkable. However, I have only a few years until retirement and do have an employment alternative that would be adequate, though the work would be harder and the income less.


This question calls for clarification of the duties of a pilot as captain of an airliner and application of the norm excluding lying. A captain should serve passengers and fellow crew members by working to overcome conditions that threaten their safety or well-being while on the aircraft. So, before quitting, the questioner at least should make a serious effort to deal with the abuses touching closely on a captain’s responsibilities, especially the rumored cheating on maintenance. Since it is a lie to tell passengers that a deliberate delay is caused by difficulty in closing the cargo door, the questioner should refuse to give that deceptive explanation. The questioner is not closely involved in any of the company’s other immoralities and bears little or no responsibility with regard to them.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In likening your position prospectively to that of proprietor of a house of prostitution, you exaggerate the depths to which management is likely to sink. You also exaggerate your personal involvement in the company’s use of pornography and exploitation of the female flight attendants to promote sales of the more costly seats. That marketing tactic, of course, is gravely evil, but you need neither intend it—as you plainly do not—nor contribute to it. By contrast, the proprietor of a house of prostitution necessarily intends all the sinful behavior from which he or she profits.

Moreover, except for delaying departures to load freight, you are not closely involved in perpetrating management’s other wrongdoing and are not likely to be tempted to become more involved in it. Your continuing to work for the company is not likely to encourage anyone else to participate in its wrongdoing, and your quitting would be unlikely to inhibit it. Consequently, while your understandable disgust is a sign of your Christian conscience’s opposition to immorality, your moral feelings do not indicate that you have an obligation to quit.

Quite the contrary. In undertaking to be an airline pilot, you should have committed yourself to use your gifts to serve your passengers and fellow crew members. I assume you did. The people you pledged to serve are now being badly treated by management. Since you have the prospect of other acceptable employment, you are in a strong position to seek appropriate ways of overcoming the evils you describe. So, it would be wrong for you to quit, in my judgment, at least until you have made a serious effort to stop the abuses that touch closely on a captain’s responsibilities. Reform always is possible, and as a Christian you should resist moral corruption, not surrender to it even by fleeing, unless duty requires that you flee. By resisting the abuses, you will not only fulfill your job’s responsibilities but exercise a valuable form of Christian apostolate. In that way, your fond recollections of past times in the face of increasing corruption will not be pointless, as nostalgia usually is.

Of the various evils you describe, one directly and very significantly concerns your duty as captain: the rumored ongoing cheating on maintenance. Lives are at stake, and, as captain, you are responsible for the safety of your passengers, crew, and yourself. You should refuse to take off if there is any unreasonable risk in doing so. Existing maintenance requirements should be presumed reasonable, and cheating on them should be presumed to entail unreasonable risk. Therefore, you and other captains should insist that the requirements be met in every instance. If you judge the rumors of ongoing cheating credible, and it seems you do, you have so strict a moral obligation to take action that even prospective unemployment would not justify tolerating the cheating—but I note that you have an acceptable employment alternative, if it comes to that.

To ensure your plane’s airworthiness before a flight, you should check out possible faults in maintenance or have someone else do so, if that is possible. If not, refuse to fly until adequately reassured that maintenance is being carried out as it should be. If you judge that this is what you must do, do everything you can to ensure that your fellow captains do the same, so that the airline’s operations will be halted. I assume you can act through your pilots’ association. If necessary, however, you should use other available channels: government agencies, the company’s insurers, the public media, and so on.

When a flight is delayed to accommodate freight, telling passengers there is a problem in closing the cargo door will not mollify them unless that ambiguous statement deceives them into supposing it refers to a mechanical problem. That statement by you therefore is a lie, and the lie will be grave matter if it imposes seriously unfair burdens on passengers—for instance, by preventing them from taking timely steps to deal with problems resulting from their delayed arrival, or seeking alternative transportation, or even canceling their trips, if that is what they would prefer to do. In the future, you must refuse to make that or any other deceptive excuse for delays. I suggest you warn management that you will no longer lie to passengers, but will explain delays either truthfully or not at all.

The flight attendants are being sexually exploited. Management is rewarding them for arousing passengers’ lust and cooperating in their own degradation. In this respect, your analogy with a house of prostitution is sound, though the managers responsible, not you, are its proprietors. Talk with the flight attendants, appeal to their self-respect, and urge them to refuse to cooperate in this indecency. You no doubt know older flight attendants whom you might encourage to oppose management in this matter; quite possibly they could work through their own union, even enlist feminist organizations and propagandists in the struggle. You also should be alert for any incident involving a passenger’s misbehavior with a flight attendant that might be criminal, annoying to other passengers, or disruptive of the crew’s work. If such an incident occurs, make as large an issue of it as you can, and try to use it to arouse the concern of government agencies and others. If you hear any passengers criticize the sexual exploitation of the flight attendants, you might encourage them to complain to management.

Not knowing the technical aspects of the system for providing pornographic movies, I cannot say much about how you might work against that evil. If there were some feasible way to sabotage the objectionable recordings and you had no reason to refrain, that would not be wrong; it would free passengers from an occasion of grave sin, and the airline can have no moral right to such material. However, I suppose such a direct approach might provoke disciplinary action and, perhaps, criminal penalties. But perhaps you could organize a protest against this pornography in the workplace by crew members who share your moral judgment.

More remote from your sphere of responsibility are the abuses you describe in advertising and sales. Of course, there are similar abuses in the marketing methods of competing airlines and many other businesses, but that by no means lessens their gravity. The public at large has an interest in correcting deceptive advertising and dishonest communication by sales agents. Anonymously providing information about these abuses to journalists, consumer groups, and so on might help remedy this evil.

Besides the preceding reasons for fulfilling your various responsibilities, an additional, general duty provides a cogent reason for doing so in an exemplary way. You are a senior member of your profession, and others look to you as a role model. By bearing clear and unflinching witness to the moral truth about your professional responsibilities, you will help all your colleagues, especially those just beginning service, to shape their own work as they should.

The state of affairs you describe also needs to be considered from a broader perspective. As you say, a rising tide of red ink motivates management to use immoral methods of cutting costs and increasing sales. But air transport is an important industry, whose service is essential to many people and useful to most others. Surely, the problems management faces could and should be dealt with in other, morally legitimate ways. Perhaps you could make some contribution to identifying what should be done, work with others, through professional associations or otherwise, in making constructive suggestions to management, or become active in politics so as to promote appropriate governmental action.

Even if you do not quit your job or lose it, you will retire in a few years. In either case, you might be able to continue to work against immoralities like those you describe and in support of the cleaner business you remember. Among other possibilities, you might consider writing and publishing your memoirs, to make known your reflections on management practices that surely will do the industry as a whole no good in the long run.