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The Case  of the Disrupting Shower

Most of us can recount bad experiences with air travel, which typically involve a flight that was cancelled or delayed for mechanical reasons or bad weather. Anne Adams’ story, in contrast, involves a pilot who couldn’t fly without first taking a shower. It also involves having to undress in front of TSA agents, but we’ll get to that later.

Adams and her husband spent the night of January 22 in Charlottesville, VA, so that they could fly to Charlotte, NC, the next morning. They arrived at the airport in time for their 5:00 a.m. American Airlines flight, but soon learned that it had been delayed to 6:30 and then to 7:15. At that point, they were allowed to board and the plane took off around 7:30.

When the pilot got on the PA to explain the delay, he said that they’d needed to de-ice the plane. Obviously, that hadn’t taken two and a half hours. The real problem, he said, was that when he and the copilot had checked into their hotel the night before, they’d been informed that the water would be off between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. for repairs—but since they wouldn’t be getting up before 3:00, they weren’t concerned.

When their alarm went off at 3:00, however, the water was still off. That meant they couldn’t shower, shave, or brush their teeth before leaving for the airport, so they delayed the flight. For two and a half hours. By Adams’ account, the pilot “sounded dismissive and like it was funny” as he relayed this information. I doubt anyone was laughing.

By then Adams and her husband had missed their 7:25 a.m. flight from Charlotte to Providence, RI, and presumably many others had also missed their connections. When she reserved their seats the day before, only 10 out of 64 in the main cabin were still available. By the time the plane boarded, however, she estimates that only one-third to one-half of the seats were occupied, even though the waiting lounge had started out “pretty full.” That suggests that many, if not most, of the other passengers had been rerouted. Adams and her husband booked a later flight out of Charlotte and arrived in Providence at 2:30 that afternoon—five hours later than they’d planned.

I contacted Media Relations at American to ask whether pilots are required to shower before their first flight of the day. Their emailed response ignored my question, saying only, “Due to a water outage at the local hotel our crew was staying at, the operational decision was made to delay the departure time from Charlottesville to give our crew time to do their best to get ready considering the situation. We never want to disrupt our customers’ travel plans and we apologize for the trouble this caused.”

Seems to me that if American’s so eager to avoid disrupting their customers’ travel plans, the “operational decision” would have been for the crew to brush their teeth and shave at the airport and wait to shower. I’ve brushed my teeth in many an airport restroom, and assume that shaving’s also possible. As for the ability to go to work without showering first, doctors, police officers, and firefighters do it all the time—because they weigh the value of taking a shower against the cost of “disrupting” other people’s lives.

To ensure that neither American nor a pilots’ advocacy group requires showering before a flight, I spoke with Capt. Dennis Tajer, Communications Chairman at the Allied Pilots Association, who said, “I’ve never been told anything like that.”

Adams’ travelogue doesn’t end with disrupted travel plans. Before she even made it to the waiting area, she had to survive three rounds of TSA scrutiny. On the first, she was asked to step aside so that an agent could pass a wand over her, swab her hands, and examine the contents of her backpack and purse in detail. On the second round, a female agent used her hands to pat Adams up and down her legs and around her belt area, after which another female agent did the same. They still weren’t happy.

On the final round, Adams was taken to a separate room and told to undress down to her underwear so that her clothes could be X-rayed. Once again, nothing was revealed and the agents decided she was safe to fly. Although the process was frustrating, Adams said that the agents were “extremely professional” throughout.

The pilots? Not so much. “I wonder,” she mused, “how much that shower cost the company.”

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