The self-righteousness of the long-distance traveler.

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July 15 2002 1:51 PM

Air Shtick

The self-righteousness of the long-distance traveler.

Illustration by Mark Stamaty

Only an unstable person would, after a long flight delay, write a 62-page letter of complaint. And only in a troubled country would such a letter get bound by a top publisher and become a cult literary sensation. Cowardice of Air France (Lâcheté d'Air France), by Mathieu Lindon, a novelist and journalist at the French daily Lib ération, has not broken onto the best-seller lists since it was published this spring. But almost everyone is talking about it, and it has its wild partisans among literary Parisians. The copy I own, for instance, was sent me by a friend who bought two dozen to give to all her friends.

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Lindon arrived at Orly Airport two weeks after Sept. 11 to travel with his boyfriend to Marrakech on a 9:45 a.m. flight. They arrived before 8:00 but soon noticed the Air France counters were abandoned—in fact, almost all the employees had gone home. At 10:30 the terminal was evacuated. A bomb threat was announced as the reason. Lindon's flight didn't leave until late afternoon, at which time the passengers were served what should have been that morning's breakfast, undefrosted.

From other passengers and from one or two Air France employees who stayed, Lindon pieced together what had happened. A threat had been received the day before, announcing that the terminal would explode at 11:14 a.m. It had been analyzed by experts and found not credible. But the rumor of the threat had spread among employees, causing them to bail out. There had been no credible bomb threat to explain the employees' departure; the threat was asserted after the fact to make their panic look less embarrassing.

Watching television in his hotel in Marrakech, Lindon was enraged to find Air France was presenting the incident as a "normal" bomb threat. Worse, they were even claiming credit for their prudence. "The phony bomb alerts, rather than being seen as a victory for the terrorists," Lindon would write in Libération, "were, on the contrary, perceived as successes for us." More generally, he adds, since Sept. 11, airlines expect their passengers to be grateful for inconvenience. (For reasons of security, he imagines them saying, you'll be treated like dogs and have no right to say anything about it.)

So, Lindon contacted Air France with his concerns: If Air France lied in such a matter, what would they do in a real emergency? Was their policy in a midflight crisis the same one of "Air France employees first"? It was hardly encouraging, he notes, that "those who left in a panic without having received any sign from their supervisors must have reckoned that the top brass was wholly capable of letting them risk their lives without even warning them."

In November, Lindon got a letter back that "did not correspond to reality in any way, and showed an unfathomable bad faith." Air France claimed the authorities had ordered the evacuation of the terminal, and that "all the agents on duty that day were required to leave the premises, like yourself." Never—even after Lindon got a letter from the Paris Airport Authority confirming his suspicions—did the airline deviate from its version of events.

Not much of a story, is it? What's more, Lindon is a clumsy and repetitive writer. So, why is this book enjoying the prestige it is? Obviously it's a predicament that almost anyone can identify with. Lindon understands this. Every time he complains to his friends about Air France, he gets an earful of  "I-can-top-that" complaints. Every reader who has ever said he's "gonna give someone a piece-a my mind about this" will feel vindicated, even empowered, in his gripes.

But the great strength of Lâcheté d'Air France—quite unintended—is its portrait of the mind of someone trapped in the gearworks of an indifferent bureaucracy. Because Lindon, in this context at least, is a repellent human being—no more worthy of respect than the lemmings of Air France. His first instinct is to use the incident to blackmail the company's customer-service department into giving him an upgrade on an approaching flight to Canada. Part of him fears that Air France will respond so courteously that it will wreck the grudge he is nursing. Had the airline just sent him the luxury tickets, he admits, he'd have dropped the whole matter. But he makes this request with such pointless petulance that the customer-service rep refuses him. Not only that, she locks him into a spectacularly cramped seat for his whole transatlantic flight. At this point, although Lindon clearly does not realize it, the basis of his complaint has changed. He is now no longer complaining, as a citizen, that a bureaucracy is corrupt and unresponsive; he is complaining, as a prima donna, that he's not being made to feel sufficiently special.

In other words, as an examination of the modern bureaucratic predicament, this book has an alluring French ambiguity. The louder it says, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," the more it reveals itself as a portrait of the very type of narcissistic con-artist of, by, and for whom modern bureaucracies are built.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West will be published in the United States in July.

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