I talk about compliance a lot, but don't always think about what it means in a practical or personal sense. I actively seek to comply always with my value system. On the other hand, I know I don't always comply with posted speed limits. I don't know that I've ever thought about being a "victim" of someone else's duty to comply – that is, until a Southwest flight I took from Kansas City to Chicago last week to work with a major school bus company.
Last Wednesday, President Obama was in my new home town to deliver an 11 a.m. speech. I had a 12:40 p.m. flight out of KCI. The Southwest gate agent stressed that we'd be striving for an efficient boarding process; the incoming plane we'd be on was a few minutes late, and passengers would be de-planing and airline staff cleaning the plane as quickly as possible. The urgency was the need to take off before the "VIP traffic" at the airport – it didn't take much to figure out what that was about – caused the airport to close down to incoming or outbound traffic. Such closure would be for an indeterminate length of time. So, Southwest's usual standard of on-time departure meant even more than usual to the airline and to the passengers on my completely full flight, many of whom had connections to make at Chicago's Midway Airport.
Soon after we were all in our seats, belted in, with large electronic devices turned off, a flight attendant announced an "Uh oh." The manifest had to equal the passenger count prior to take off. . .and it didn't. There was one extra passenger on the plane (as an aside, I still can't figure out why that person wasn't immediately obvious just because s/he would have been standing, since we were told the flight was full to capacity.) When the mystery traveler did not self-identify, we were told to take out our ID's – the flight attendants would manually check each against the manifest. Soon – but not soon enough – they determined that one of two friends traveling together, was the culprit. Only one of the young women had a ticket for this flight; the other had flown here from somewhere else, so was properly in the gate area, but wasn't booked on this trip. You can easily guess why it wasn't "soon enough:" the window of opportunity had been slammed shut by the need for compliance with the rule that manifest must match passenger count, and the VIP traffic had shut down the airport. Since Chicago was my destination, I was not agitated; a good many of my co-travelers, however, felt as I would have if I were now going to miss a connection. They were victims of compliance.
As a note, Southwest was a victim, too. It had two standards with which to comply, but clearly, the on-time departure ideal had to give way to the matching manifest rule. After all, what if the extra passenger had been a terrorist, instead of a needy friend?
A couple of days after I arrived, I was asked to give a short presentation about compliance to terminal managers and safety officers at the company with which I was consulting. While I had my usual case law examples of "What's So Good about Compliance," my airline experience lent a certain real-life texture to the conversation. I wondered, too, what the reactions of those passengers with missed connections would have been to the Kansas City Star's report that Obama left KC later than planned. He had stopped at the lovely town of Parkville (12 minutes from my home), and enjoyed his visit so much with those he encountered and shops he popped into that he didn't want to leave!
Clearance Lights is authored by STN contributors Peggy Burns and Pete Meslin to give "clear insights with a school transportation twist." Burns is an education attorney and owner of Education Compliance Group as well as editor of Legal Routes and a tenured faculty member for the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers National Conference. Meslin is the director of transportation for Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Southern California and is a member of the National Board of Advisors for the TSD Conference. The are both also frequent presenters at the STN EXPO.