When Dr David Dao refused to give up his seat on an overbooked United Airlines plane in the US two Sundays ago, nobody could have foreseen the consequences.
Insisting that he had to see patients in his home state in Kentucky the next morning, the doctor clung to his window seat on the flight out of Chicago, Illinois.
Then the unthinkable happened. Security was called and after a violent tussle with the passenger in his economy class window seat, the medical practitioner was dragged off apparently unconscious with two teeth missing, a broken nose and concussion.
In an age of instant cellphone cameras, this was going to be a massive public relations disaster for one of the largest airlines in the US.
First there were the anguished cries of passengers targeting the security officers. What are you doing? This is wrong! Look at what you did to him!
While the CEO of the airline called Dr Dao “disruptive and belligerent”, United shares fell by 6.3%, which was a whopping $1.4-billion (R18.6-billion) in real money.
Late night comedians had a field day with United.
Over and over again, millions of television viewers would witness the dragging off of the doctor and his sudden reappearance running down the aisle with blood over his face.
The tone deaf airline CEO changed his tune and apologised profusely when he started to see the intensity of the public reaction and the very real effects of this spectacular mismanagement of a single client already seated for departure.
Dr Dao is about to become a very rich man.
I thought of this incident as I followed the social media logs of my train-travelling sister as she makes her way on Cape Metrorail from Retreat towards Cape Town every day.
What I read is truly unbelievable. Trains are chronically late. Passengers will jump from a stalled train at ennight and with cellphones as torches make their way along the live railway tracks. Two trains will be standing alongside each other and passengers will rip open the doors and jump from one train to the next.
Announcements, if they are made at all, will regularly give the wrong platform for a departing train so that passengers will scramble back and forth from one side of the station to the next in the hope of being at the right place at the right time.
Trains in peak hours are overloaded, doors open and sometimes passengers are hanging off the back of the train. The space inside the train is a constant risk to personal safety and security, quite apart from the roaring commercial trade on the train floor competing for attention with crude evangelists with a rather shaky grasp of whatever they were preaching.
Right now, posts my sister, we have no idea whether this speeding train is on the suburban line or the Cape Flats line; it does not matter, she writes, I just need to get home.
If you had any doubts about official contempt for poor, black people in contemporary South Africa, a one-way trip on Metrorail will convince you.
A university student in sociology grappling with the complexities of race and class in post-apartheid society would learn much more from a morning in third class (yes, that’s what it’s openly called) than in a stifling seminar room on campus.
On the other side of the country you simply have to pay enough money and you can slide away in an on-time, air-conditioned Gautrain with well-dressed security guards on the watch for gum-chewing passengers.
The Metrorail passengers have little choice. They can spend upwards of R500 on a monthly ticket – a huge cut from a miserly salary.
Nobody on these trains can afford Uber or take more than one mode of transport to get to work. Where things get really costly is when the passengers lose out on their salary because once again the trains are late.
Even when you leave early, says an enterprising passenger, you’re still late with the unpredictable train timetables.
Like the United CEO, Metrorail will have a ready string of excuses, cable theft being one of them. Which raises the question – why is the problem not being fixed? Billions have been wasted on fancy trains, as we now know. So why can’t we do the simple things right and fix this problem?
It’s not as if passengers have not reached the point of being gatvol before and burnt carriages out of pure frustration. Nobody wins with an unresponsive and ineffective Metrorail management.
To Metrorail I would simply say, borrowing from the United Airlines passengers: What are you doing to the poor? This is wrong. Look at what you are doing to your people.