Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ethical Questions on Vacation

Some thoughts on a few situations from this past weekend.

We were flying home on vacation with a connection in Denver, Colorado. Originally, we had about one (1) hour between flights. However our first flight was delayed—due to weather—for 2 ½ hours. Needless to say we (along with the majority of the plane) missed our connection.

Off we all trouped to “Customer Service” to obtain a new flight the next morning, and vouchers for dinner, breakfast and a hotel room. The vouchers were “use-it-or-lose-it”; no cash would be returned if the amount wasn’t used. We were allotted up to $60 (for four people) for dinner and $60 for breakfast. Upon finding an airport restaurant, we ordered more than enough food (more than we would normally get) and the total came up to around $40. We then had the following conversation, repeated almost verbatim the next morning at breakfast:

Cashier: You still have money left…what else do you want?
Me: Nothing, thank you.
Cashier: We don’t give cash back.
Me: Yes, I know. That is enough.
Cashier: You sure you don’t want to order some food to go, or bottles of water, or something?
Me: No, we don’t need it.

I figured we were delayed for no fault of the airline. It happens. Why “punish” the airline by using up the voucher buying food we didn’t need? The cashier looked at me as if I was crazy. (Of course the restaurant was making money on the MORE things they sell, so it made sense to push me to use the entire voucher.)

The next morning, due to the early hour, the only airport restaurant open was McDonalds. I saw many of the same passengers from the night before in line—all of us with our vouchers. Now…we had $15 each to spend. I have never spent $15 per person at McDonald’s. Ever. So…again…I ordered what we would normally eat. Again had the same conversation about money left, no cash back, why don’t I order more?, etc.

The vouchers are “up to” a certain amount…not spend it like money was made on trees. I was a little surprised people felt so obligated to spend the entire amount; I was shocked how people found it odd I didn’t want to spend $60 at McDonalds on four people. The Fat Man next to me proudly grinned, “I spent $14.93,” as I looked over his two (2) bags of food (including 2 cinnamon bites), large coffee, large orange juice and large milk.

I found it curious.

Scenario #2—the Fat Man.

In these situations, a sort of camaraderie develops amongst the victims. In Durango, Colorado, we all commiserated about the flights we would be missing before our take-off. In Denver, we all stood in the same “Customer Service” line. We rode the shuttle to the hotel and back again. We saw each other in the airport the next day.

“Where you headed?”
“What flight did you get?”
“How much did they give you?”

We endured the pain together.

The Fat Man went straight to the front of the line at Customer Service (by-passing about 25 people) and informed them he could not stand in line because of his heart condition, his diabetes and his breathing problems. Further, he informed everyone within hearing range that he was quickly running out of medicine and needed to get home (Atlanta) in order to re-supply.

It sounded serious.

He sat down next to my family who were waiting for me to get to the Customer Service Counter. Upon learning we were from Michigan, he piped up how he once lived in Michigan. As the conversation developed, it came out we support Michigan State University.

Fat Man: Oh, I root for University of Michigan.*
Wife: Did you go there?**
Fat Man: No, I went to a private school in South Carolina.
Wife: Bob Jones University?
Fat Man: [somewhat hesitantly] Yesss…
Wife: Oh, we have a relative who works there.

*If you lived in Michigan, you would know some of the biggest rivalry is between cheering on MSU as compared to UofM.
**They never do. A common saying is, “MSU fans went to Michigan State; U of M fans went to Wal-Mart.”

At this point the Fat Man was relieved to find fellow Christians, and began to regale us with tales of his past two weeks missionary work amongst the Navajo Indians, and his previous two weeks at some other place, doing God’s work. Luckily, our situation was resolved at that minute; we were able to break away with (relieved) exclamations of “Well…good luck!”

Now I was watching these vouchers for the same hotel being handed to passenger after passenger, and wondered if the airline was making reservations as well, or just handing out vouchers. I called the hotel, did not receive a clear answer--so to be safe, I reserved two (2) rooms. (They only had single king-size rooms, and our family was not all going to fit in one (1) king-size bed!)

We would only be at the hotel for six (6) hours.

With our rooms assured, we ate leisurely, and caught the airport shuttle to the hotel. In the hotel lobby, there was a ruckus. Even a bit of a snit. A number of our fellow passengers were milling about and the Fat Man was yelling about how “I have a VOUCHER, and I must have a ROOM, and we were promised we could STAY HERE!” The harried clerk said again and again, “I am sorry, people, but all the rooms are booked.”

Upon seeing us, the Fat Man continued to yell, “Good Luck getting a room, Your ‘VOUCHER’” (he almost spit the word) “is worth NOTHING! They won’t even let me sleep in the Lobby—they said they would call the police!”

Now at that moment, it seriously crossed my mind to tell the Fat Man to wait, see if our two rooms were being held (they were), and see if we could somehow accommodate to fit all of us in one room (with blankets, roll-aways, whatever) and give the Fat Man the other room. As it turns out, the rooms were large enough, it was certainly feasible. And we were only going to be there a few hours anyway.

I really, really wanted to say, “Fat Man—you can have one of our rooms. And just know it was an atheist—not a Christian—who charitably gave it up for you.” But then I thought, “This is the type of guy who will go home and entertain his entire congregation with a story about how God provided a hotel room for him (not thinking about all the other passengers who were missing out) and how God has such a sense of humor, He even used an Atheist as the tool to provide for God’s child!”

And if I didn’t say I was an atheist, he would still tell the story of his “rescue” miraculously provided by God with a small mention of the human involved. Whereas the reality is—one human (me) happened to be a little more pro-active.

I didn’t give up the room.

The next day I saw the Fat Man spend $14.93 at McDonalds.

When I told my wife I felt slightly guilty for not giving up the room for him, she was aghast. “Him?” She told me the Fat Man confessed to her his insurance had lapsed, and that was the reason he was running out of medicine—not the timing of the trip. He gleefully admitted he was using the “running out of Medicine” as a means to get service.

Yet I still wonder if I should have given the Fat Man the room.

Not because I am a particularly nice person—I just love the delicious irony it would take an atheist—not a God, not a fellow Christian—to resolve this boorish Fat Man’s problem. Even if he never knew…I would.


  1. I really enjoyed reading that, there's no way i could spend £15 at McDonald's on my own either...

  2. I've seen this same "entitlement" behavior too. It strikes me as very odd as well, but then, I'm not one who spends every bit of my paycheck either. I wonder if there is a real correlation between religion and that entitlement...

    I have savored that same irony a time or two in my life. It is pretty sweet. :-) Given this man's abrasive behavior, though, I probably would have played it the same way you did.

    Great portrayals, by the way.

  3. The weather wasn't the airlines fault, but how they schedule the flights and book them takes into account the possibility that people who miss flights will have to be fed and put up for the night. As a result, I would have had no qualms about ordering a bottle of water or some tidbit to go that I wouldn't have ordered if paying myself, particularly if the people at the restaurant seemed nice. On the other hand, just the thought of eating $15 worth of McDonald's food makes me slightly nauseous (even though breakfast is the best thing they do) and I think that I would just as soon let the airline kept the money.

    Being a dick towards the hotel clerk is inexcusable regardless of the circumstances. Sharing your rooms with the guy would have bordered on the heroic, however, worrying too much about how he would tell the story when he got home probably would have cost you 20% of the good karma. I think I feel sorriest for whoever got seated next to the guy on the last leg of the flight.

  4. Great story, entertaining and instructive.

  5. If we're going to consider ethical implications, we must also consider the broader implications. I would have let the Fat Man go off and look for accommodation elsewhere, and offered the extra space (if the hotel would let it be used that way) on the two or three other passengers you could probably have fit in the same space. (And no, I'm not making a fat joke there. Your description of this guy makes it clear that he's the sort who would demand that you give him extra space, maybe even one of the beds all to himself.)

    I am terrified that within my lifetime we're going to get a massive version of the Fat Man problem: suppose I could give a very strong argument that, if current trends continue, the world would be broken in such a way that the human population would certainly drop by at least 99% and probably more, possibly ending in complete extinction. Now suppose I could also provide a very strong argument that reducing the world's population by 95% at random would almost certainly allow humanity to survive. This is starting to look like a very realistic scenario; if you were a scientist working at a biological warfare lab (which the U.S. has, contrary to its own laws and treaty obligations), how much evidence would you demand to see before you unleashed the ebola? (And if you are not at least a little chilled by that, once you have answered that question, do you think the people who actually work at these labs would come to the same conclusion?)

  6. I just have no patience for these types. And by the way, I think your genuinely compassionate nature is part of the equation. I confess I would not have had that compulsion. At least you can enjoy the "delicious irony" that a professed Christian was the gluttonous, selfish, deceptive, hostile, passive aggressive, and needy one while the atheist was the temperate, empathic, honest, and resourceful one! Another entertaining tale.

  7. Like DoOrDoNot, I have no patience for folks with a sense of 'entitlement'. I know plenty of 'good Christian folk' who would lie(because that's what this man did) to get ahead and sling a hissy fit when they didn't get their way. Sad. All I can do is shake my head.

  8. This is a side comment, but your post sparked a memory for me. I remember, as a little kid, being given a t-shirt by one of my Michigan family members that said something like, Run for the Roses, Michigan Wolverines. I had know idea which university it was from, so I looked it up. I'm not a fan of U of M, so hopefully you won't hold this t-shirt against me! :)

  9. Good story, but I am missing the ethical questions unless you failed to live up to your own standard.

  10. Kerry Ashford,

    I excel at not living up to my own moral standard. That is exactly what this tale is about.

  11. I saw where you felt slightly guilty, which i can understand since it seems some of us actually have some desire to help and not take advantage of others, but you keep referring to him as the Fat Man, and some would see as a derogatory manner or even bullying if it was too his face as you mention in repeatedly and not just as description of the man’s physical statue, so I figured you were joking about the ethical issue.