Airplane Safety and Alcohol

Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary, Transportation

Ever since Wilbur and Orville Wright proved that heavier than air machines could indeed fly, safety has been the first priority when it comes to air travel. Engines and chassis are inspected and re-inspected. It only makes sense that if some gizmo in your car engine breaks, your car will stop, and you can get out and take a look under the hood. You don’t have that luxury in an airplane. If the engine fails, you fall out of the sky.

And the same goes for in-flight safety. The pilots and crew must have calm and quiet in order to do their jobs. The passengers are entitled to the same.

And that is why rules about alcohol consumption and intoxicated passengers are so strict on an airplane. If a flight attendant believes that a person about to board the airplane is intoxicated, the attendant is required to prevent that person from boarding. After the airplane has left the ground, the attendants are very careful to ensure that a passenger does not consume too much alcohol.

The extreme importance of ensuring that intoxicated people do not endanger the lives of others on a flight makes an incident that occurred recently in Quebec so hard to understand.

A Quebec cabinet minister informed a group of people that there might be a problem of intoxicated people boarding airplanes in northern Quebec. The airplanes transport people needing medical attention from the Indigenous communities located there to centres in the south. Parents of sick children were now to be allowed to accompany their children on the flights. The Minister appeared to have information that some of the adults accompanying children might have drinking problems. He vowed that intoxicated people would not be allowed on the flights.

So far, there is nothing unusual in any of this. If the Minister had information to suggest that there was a real possibility that intoxicated people might board airplanes bound for the south, no one would even suggest that he was acting improperly. In fact, he would be derelict in his duties if he did nothing to stop intoxicated people from boarding those flights.

And one would also expect that the local Indigenous leaders would support the Minister’s efforts. After all, it would be the lives of Indigenous passengers that would be placed in jeopardy by having the unpredictable, and often violent behaviour that is a natural byproduct of intoxication, in a volatile mix with medically compromised passengers.

But, here is where things became quite odd:

The Indigenous leaders expressed no concern for the safety of their constituents at all. The fact that intoxicated people might be a potential problem on airplanes carrying Indigenous people in need of medical attention did not even get a mention. Instead, they unanimously accused the Minister of being “racist” for bringing attention to the possibility of intoxicated people boarding medical flights. In fact, they demanded the Minister’s resignation.

Then, things became odder still. Instead of doing what he should have done – which was to let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that knee jerk accusations would not stop him from standing up for basic air safety principles – the Minister immediately apologized. Apparently, he was so afraid of the “racist” label that he was prepared to ignore the problem he had initially claimed was a very real potential problem. So confident were the Indigenous leaders of the power of the “racist” label they wield like a sword, that they were quite prepared to ignore the possible safety concerns of their own people to make their political points.

But why is the threat of the “racist” label so powerful that it convinces a cabinet minister to issue a grovelling apology, when he knows that he was just raising a possible air safety issue?

I suspect that it is an overreaction to the use of the “drunken Indian” stereotype that has done so much harm to the many industrious Indigenous people who do not fit that picture at all. Nobody wants to be accused of employing that negative stereotype. As Indigenous author Harold Johnson says in his book, “Firewater,” the white man who risks using the words ‘Indian’ and ‘alcohol’ in the same sentence is sure to be labelled a racist.

And yet, to ignore a possible safety issue involving alcohol in a northern area, where heavy drinking plagues so many Indigenous communities, is equally wrong. On many First Nations communities, alcohol has virtually become a way of life. It is the main reason why so many Indigenous people are in jails, and why so many Indigenous children have to be apprehended from their alcoholic homes. It is not a problem that this Minister was making up. It is very real. If there was any possibility that alcohol consumption could jeopardize the lives of medically compromised Indigenous patients, it is certainly something that needs discussion.

This Minister may not have chosen his words well when attempting to bring attention to the importance of the need for complete sobriety on medical flights, but he was not wrong to raise the issue. The chiefs can take issue with the wording used by the Minister, but they were wrong to immediately shut down discussion by using the “racist” card. Stifling discussion of an issue as important as heavy alcohol consumption in First Nations communities virtually guarantees that the problem will continue.

It was later claimed that the Minister’s statement was contrary to the spirit of reconciliation.

The same can be said about the chiefs’ knee jerk reaction.