Did Southwest Airlines Contribute to a Suicide?

Southwest Airlines red and blue airplane sitting at airport runway

A Wisconsin woman is looking for answers after she said Southwest Airlines refused to let her use her cellphone to make a call that could have saved her husband’s life.

On April 3, Karen Momsen-Evers was flying back to Milwaukee after a girls’ trip in New Orleans. Right before takeoff, she received a text from her husband that read: “Karen, please forgive me for what I am about to do, I am going to kill myself…”

“I started shaking and I was panicked,” Momsen-Evers told FoxNews.com. “I texted him ‘no, ‘no,’ and he responded, ‘yes, because I have to.'”

The text reached her just as flight crew were finishing cabin checks, but she said she knew the text was “serious” because her husband, who’d been very stressed recently, never threatened suicide before.  She said that she told a male flight attendant what was happening and showed him the text messages.

“The steward slapped the phone down and said ‘you have to put that in airplane mode. We were pushing away from the gate,'” Momsen-Evers recalls. The unidentified crew member explained that it was “FAA regulations.”

Helpless, Momsen-Evers waited until airborne to reach out to another flight attendant for help and asked if they could make an emergency call from the cockpit.

“I showed her the texts. She said that she there is nothing she could do and that they could not disturb the pilot.  They offered me a drink, that was it,” says Momsen-Evers. “I just wanted someone to go and try to save him.”

When the plane landed, Momsen-Evers was greeted by law enforcement officials who told her that her husband was dead.

“No one could say if it would have made a difference, but I just wanted someone to do a well- check where the police could check on someone suicidal,” she said. “I wasn’t looking to get off or stop the airplane. I was just looking for someone to make a phone call.” [source of story: FoxNews.com 5/14/15]

Who’s to blame here? Ultimately, the man who killed himself. He made his choice, and nobody can be responsible except for himself.

I have no idea what factors led to his suicide. The story does not report them, and those factors might never be known by anyone.

The element of this story that provokes compassion and empathy in a reasonable person is the idea of someone reaching out to his loved one. Most of us are not suicidal and don’t have any intention of dying, certainly not deliberately. From that perspective, this man was “crying out for help,” and perhaps wanted to be talked out of dying. But the fact that he ultimately went on to end his life offers contrary evidence. It’s just as possible that he meant what he texted to his wife — that he wished to die, he intended to follow through, and he wanted to at least say goodbye. There may well have been no talking him out of it.

Some will suggest that the wife’s emotional pain over not being permitted to even speak to her husband is the fault of Southwest Airlines. But is it? Isn’t Southwest Airlines doing what the FAA, the TSA and other government agencies require them to do? And aren’t these agencies merely doing what the majority of voters have empowered and repeatedly told their officials to do, i.e. to regulate the airlines and leave most of these determinations in the hands of government?

Government mandates a one-size-fits-all policy. In principle, most people agree with such a policy. But when it comes to an unusual or legitimate exception, suddenly the one-size-fits-all policy isn’t such a valuable thing. Does the policy itself, or the government, get any of the blame here? No way. The company or entity being required to implement the one-size-fits-all policy gets the blame. In this case, that will be Southwest Airlines.

That’s what will happen here. The grieving widow and others will ask, “Why was Southwest Airlines so mean and insensitive?” But they’re doing what the law requires. “But if they were reasonable and compassionate, they would have made an exception.” But Southwest Airlines doesn’t make these policies; the FAA does. Who’s to say whether or not the federal government would have made an exception? Should the airline have subjected itself to fines, lawsuits and bad publicity by allowing the woman to call her husband? How were they to know she was even telling the truth? If they believed her, must they not believe anyone and everyone who asks for an exception? If they grant an exception in one case, but not in others, won’t they be subject to fines and lawsuits based on discrimination for any number of reasons?

Some will say, “Yes, Southwest employees should have done the right, common sense-oriented and compassionate thing, and let this woman call her husband despite the law.” But once the lawsuits, fines and bad publicity drove up costs, what then? Surely ticket costs would have to go up. Or perhaps employees would be let go. There has to be a consequence somewhere, if the airline is to keep on staying in business. Remember that making an exception for this one woman means making an exception for many others — or else.

It’s so easy to consider one element of a situation while ignoring all the others. That’s what people do. It’s unfair, and, cognitively speaking, it’s an error in thinking. But it’s the sort of cognitive error that leads to so many of the problems we continue to see with our government, with our heavily regulated private sector, and with society in general.

Some will probably go so far as to blame Southwest Airlines for this man’s death. But suicide is a choice. The vast majority of people who are feeling troubled, resentful or low do not take this path. It’s reasonable for loved ones to want to have every chance to prevent the suicide, or talk the troubled person out of it, if possible. And there are certainly times where a person who feels this troubled starts to feel less troubled, by virtue of the fact that they know they matter to someone, someone who would be devastated if they died, especially in this way.

But we tie the hands of businesses with all this government regulation designed to make us feel safer and more secure. The problem is, we take the judgment out of the hands of the people most affected, and put it into the centralized, completely disinterested and often unaccountable authorities we think will take care of us.

Let’s assume this man might have lived had his wife been allowed to respond to him, or if the police could have reached him in time (unlikely, if he was serious, but possible). Regardless, don’t blame Southwest Airlines. Blame the bureaucratic and authority-worshiping mentality that puts all of us into these situations in the first place. Most of the time, that mentality does not necessary kill. But command-and-control from above imposes a cost, a series of unintended consequences we don’t usually foresee.

One of my readers pointed out that the woman in this situation should simply have defied orders. In response to this story, she wrote,

If this is true it’s a pathetic example of how the sheeple will take orders in the name of “safety” regulations.  What kind of nitwit is this woman that she didn’t say “[Forget] you, I’m going to do everything possible to save my husband, whether the FAA likes it or not”?  What an [idiot.] No wonder the guy killed himself.  Southwest didn’t prevent her from calling. Her instinct to obey and comply prevented her from calling.”

She’s not wrong. Sadly, most people have internalized the view that we must blindly follow authority, regardless. Crisis situations create opportunities for heroism. Heroic action means acting in accordance with your rationally held values. A spouse is certainly a rational value in life — one of the biggest. We perhaps should not be too hard on this woman without knowing all the facts. But we still have to ask ourselves, if under a highly stressful situation of some kind — involving life or death — would we succumb to authority, or do what we know is right?

What do you think you would do in this situation? Was Southwest Airlines, or even the FAA, this woman’s husband’s keeper? Or should they have been their own keepers?

At the end of the day, or even in the final moments of life, we are sovereign over our own destinies. Just as the suicidal husband made his choice, his grieving wife made hers. There’s a terrible price when you place the authority of others above the knowledge of your own mind, and she’s paying it.

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