There I was, all ready to pronounce judgment and damnation on the two pilots who overflew Minneapolis airport a couple of weeks ago. This was unforgivable! The lives of passengers were at stake! How could any pilot make such an error?

Then I read this op-ed piece, and I realized my own error.

The article, by Peter Garrison—a pilot and contributing editor to Flying—provides a glimpse into the cockpit on a long-distance flight. Apparently it is a mind-numbing experience. Computer systems do the bulk of the flying, with no need for human input. The cockpit itself is tiny and doesn’t allow for much movement. The pilot’s job, for long stretches of the flight, is to monitor the instruments, hour after hour after hour.

Now, does that excuse the pilots of Northwest flight 188? You can still make a case that their lapse was inexcusable; indeed, the FAA has done so—and taken action. 

So what did I do wrong? 

I rushed to judgment. I assessed the situation and decided on the right and wrong of it without hearing from the other side. Garrison’s op-ed helped me to understand the situation from the pilot’s perspective. While I still might think the mistake was egregious, I now get what these folks are dealing with—and my compassion for them grows. 

Now imagine what could happen if I were in a policymaking position. Without Garrison’s perspective, I might write this off as the unique problem of two wayward pilots. Having read Garrison, I have to consider whether we need systemic change—more regular hours and sleep schedules, say, or different protocols—to support pilots more effectively. Overlooking the need for such systemic change, if that is indeed the underlying cause behind the incident, could have catastrophic results. 

This sort of thing is what makes dialogue so vital. Dialogue brings us face to face with the perspectives of the other. We cannot help but hear the context behind the decision, error, or insight that horrifies us. Even if we don’t agree—even if we still have to revoke licenses—we can have more understanding. Policymakers, by dialoguing in this way, can get the fullest possible picture and thus make the most effective changes, not just the measures clamored for in the heat of the moment. 

Perhaps this begins to answer last week’s post. Perhaps, when people ask why dialogue is important, we talk about the pilots of Northwest flight 188 as just one example.