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Oppenheim: Flight Fright

My wife and I were returning home from Florida on Delta Airlines when something happened that pales in comparison with events like the baggage claim shootings in Fort Lauderdale - but still I find myself thinking about it.

I’d fallen asleep before take-off, but during ascent, I was suddenly awakened by a young man, probably in his 20’s, having a meltdown in the seat directly behind me.

He was shouting at the top of his lungs and pounding his forehead with his hands. It was a bit like being near a crying baby, but twice as loud and far more disturbing. Later, I’d learn he was severely autistic.

We were sitting in an exit row, and so was the young man. He sat beside a couple - his relatives. The young man wasn’t capable of exit row responsibilities; he never should have sat there. But surprisingly, the crew didn’t ask us those pre-flight exit row questions about whether we could help in an emergency. And they didn’t ask him either.

I became concerned. Not, as you might think, about the guy screaming behind me – but about the guy right in front of me who looked angry, even belligerent, as he started recording the incident with his cell phone. When I stared at him with a look that said “are you kidding?” he muttered something about getting a refund.

The flight crew was professional. They did their best to calm the agitated passenger and move him to another seat, where he finally settled down.

Throughout, my wife and I tried to be helpful, mostly by not interfering. But it struck me as ironic, that during the 15 minutes or so of screaming, I was mostly worried about the reaction of other passengers. One even said the autistic man should be put on a no-fly list, and I found myself wondering if we’re entering an era where selfishness and entitlement are on the rise.

On that plane, a man with a disability got frightened. And for safety’s sake, he needed to be moved to another seat, but he never seemed likely to harm others.

Yet too many people were apparently only thinking about themselves - instead of how to help him.

If that airplane is in any way representative of our society as a whole, then I’m afraid we’re heading in the wrong direction.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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