The JetBlue Truman Show

I'm sitting on JetBlue Flight 212, the Thursday afternoon flight from Long Beach, Calif. to New York. Just a few seats away sits Diane Hamilton, an attractive 40-something woman with striking features and a 1000-yard stare.

I had met Diane on the security line, when she dropped her carry-on baggage on my foot -- an excellent conversation starter. Thinking I could sound both cynical and clever at the same time, I made a semi-sarcastic remark about hoping that we would get a JetBlue plane with wheels that pointed in the right direction. I was referring, of course, to last week's JetBlue Flight 292, from Burbank, Calif. to New York, which had to make an emergency landing at LAX because of trouble with the plane's landing gear.

Diane gave me a wry smile and told me that she'd been a passenger on Flight 292. With both feet in my mouth, I sheepishly asked how she was feeling, and she said, "Great! I just finished an interview with Diane Sawyer, and they put me up at the Westin -- then they drove me here by limo and paid for everything." Without my asking, she pulled out her digital camera and showed me pictures that she'd taken on the plane and on the runway that she offered to e-mail to me. Perhaps the poor dear was in shock; I know I was. "Great?" I asked. "Yep, great!" she replied as she headed through the security scanner.



When we got to the waiting area we spoke for a while, and then she ran into other people who had been on 292. They started to compare notes about which expensive hotels they'd been comped into and what kind of limos they were transported in -- and, not surprisingly, what morning show or network they had done interviews with.

To my complete surprise, everyone in our waiting area who had been on the flight was living large and loving life. The stories they were sharing were all about the red carpet, not the ordeal itself.

The efficiency of the news media and the absolute comfort (or actual entitlement) emanating from these individuals about their 15 minutes of fame should (and will) be the subject of a book sometime soon. However, the part that fascinated me was the DirecTV factor.

According to Diane, almost everyone on the plane was tuned into a news channel that was covering their emerging situation. "Hey, we're on the news!" she heard some guy yell from a few seats away. Then, for several hours as they circled Los Angeles, they watched and listened to reporters and pundits ponder their fate.

Diane said that one of the weirdest parts of the flight was saying to her fellow passengers, "now would be a good time for them to tell us about the emergency landing procedures," and then hearing some aviation expert on DirecTV saying, "they're probably going over the emergency landing procedures right about now." Then, right after everybody had heard about it on TV, the crew started to do just that.

I can't imagine what these people were going through, or what they may have been thinking. It must be beyond nerve-wracking not to know your fate -- but to know that you are in a significant amount of danger.

Because this turned out as well as it possibly could have, and everyone is safe and sound, I think we can spend a second to think about how remarkable the media's role has become in our culture. Those of us of a certain age remember watching the Vietnam War on our television sets every evening. Most experts will tell you that CNN became a major news network because of its coverage of the Gulf War. We all remember watching O.J. Simpson driving all over Los Angeles, the Twin Towers coming down and the incredible scenes from the embedded reporters in the ongoing war in Iraq. But, as far as I can tell, this is the first time in history that people who were participants in an emerging, evolving news story (that could have ended in their own death) were able to watch their fate unfold, live, with expert commentary on several different channels. (Actually, I'm watching the follow-up stories on the plane right now as I'm typing this.)

To the crew's credit, they turned off the plane's television monitors about 20 minutes before the flight landed, so passengers were not able to watch the landing on a large screen. But if any of them had had wireless, video-enabled PDAs, or Qualcomm's new MediaFLO cell phones, he or she would have been able to watch the entire episode live (even while in crash position).

That passenger could have seen some pretty dramatic, unsettling pictures, as the plane's front tires burned away and its metal armature scraped along the runway.

I always get yelled at when these columns are not about online marketing, and I'm really going to be taken out to the woodshed because this is OMMA week. But, there is no way that anyone in the media business can let this bizarre combination of life, media, technology and art (yes, there were graphics created and shown on several networks during the crisis) go by without comment.

I'd love to hear your comments about how far or (far-side) our mass-mediated culture has come.

Also, kudos to JetBlue for being an exemplary corporate citizen.

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