This strange travel season has the airlines rethinking every aspect of policy including the addition of pre-flight temperature checks and in-flight bathroom permission from attendants. One more they add to the pile is to redirect their early military boarding preference to those serving in the medical profession.
As an active duty soldier, before COVID-19, I routinely boarded airplanes before even those with elite airline status. “I’d like to invite our military forward at this time,” the gate attendant would say into the PA system. Then I’d stroll past some halted horde of fellow travelers, flash my military ID, and strut onto an empty plane.
This military boarding policy, followed by most major carriers, comes from a good place. It’s an expression of appreciation for those who truly do sometimes give of themselves past when it hurts. It certainly meant something to me on the three occasions when I’ve returned home after a year of military service away from my own family. Repeat that feeling a quarter-million times annually, the approximate number of deployed American troops at any given time, and you start to get the sense that this policy has registered a real impact.
But, unfortunately — uncomfortably — the policy also puts the military ahead of citizens. Military members routinely board before others with hardships and some that serve in other ways, like teachers, firefighters, clergy, and social workers. While military service and the sacrifice that comes with it may be unique and distinct, we’re not special. We’re not the only ones who serve.
In this way, the policy undermines the military’s service-before-self ethos. While we often say “leaders eat last,” this policy puts us first. And every other American air traveler sees this with each short haircut that marches on to the front of the line.
Other airline privileges for the military makes sense. Free checked bags enable movement for government servants that’re expected to move often. Automatic TSA pre-check enrollment is reasonable because those in uniform will have been vetted for security purposes. Moreover, when combined, these two policies remove any practical purpose for early aircraft boarding. If we can place our bags under the plane without cost, and we can zoom our way through security, then early boarding seems gratuitous.
But this boarding policy isn’t really about getting a leg-up in the overhead compartment rat-race. It’s a form of social respect. A way of honoring military service. It’s an overhang from the post-9/11 Yellow Ribbon era. It began as a good faith effort to support soldiers through the longest wars in American history. But, in large part, our military fights have diminished, from blazing fires to smoldering embers.
And the medical profession’s fight rages against COVID-19. Doctors the world over are using war-time terminology to describe their struggle. Here, in hotspots from New York to Navajo land, our medical profession is fighting the virus to the death. The casualty figures are staggering. In just a few months, COVID-19’s toll has exceeded all combat deaths in America’s wars after World War II, including Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
We fight viruses like we fight wars. We risk some lives to protect others.
Right now, it’s the medical profession’s turn in this terrible arena. I know it well and I do not envy them. The least we can do is pass this boarding privilege on to them, at least for a while. To doctors, nurses, medical assistants, hospital chaplains, all who keep our medical facilities clean, and especially those who work with the elderly. Every one of them. It takes a medical army to fight a virus.
All it will take is one airline CEO to recognize that air travel and our entire society is now contingent on the bravery, resilience, and expertise of our medical profession. One CEO to start putting the ones wearing scrubs onto planes first. Beyond being the right thing to do, this move would lean into the bandwagons of Americans cheering nightly for those on the front lines of this fight.
So here’s my memo to the airlines: Help rebrand 2020 away from this virus and toward those serving in our medical profession. This soldier, and likely many others, would gladly step aside for our medical heroes that protect our lives every day. For once, please, let us soldiers stand down and salute.
Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. Contact him at email@example.com.