An Open Letter to CEO Jeff Smisek On United Airlines’ Blasphemous Safety Video

Dear Mr. Smisek:

Delayed flights, telephone customer care wait times, negotiations between United Continental Holdings and its employees: these are among the things with which this letter is not concerned, you may be relieved to know. Perhaps you would agree that in the final analysis, such things are of no concern. No, Mr. Smisek, this message is not the grievance of a disgruntled customer. It is a witness to an abomination. It is a plea for spiritual recompense.

In the video message that was played before my last United Airlines flight, you expressed your desire to greet each and every passenger; you invited us to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. If I could greet you now, I would want to know: were you unaware of the monstrosity that was about to follow?

There, rising above the hiss of the pressurized air, as the video monitors snapped to the image of an engorged sun bursting from behind the branded tailfin of a cruising aircraft, I heard the unmistakable strains of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” the majestic opening melody of the slow movement, the andantino moderato. From the first moments, it was obvious that the sonorous orchestral instrumentation had been replaced by the sheen of digital keyboards.

By the time the music reached the third measure, I sensed the dawning of something even more hideous. The melody disappeared entirely to make way for the announcer’s voiceover—“Please make sure your phone and all electronics are switched off and stowed”—as a single chord hovered to a simple four-beat pulse in the fashion of light pop radio. Gone were the jaunty, urbane syncopations that will forever mark the arrival of the jazz idiom—and with it the bluesy sinews of the American soul—to the hallowed halls of Western art music, smothered under a featureless musical goo and carried off to further mutilations I will not relate here.

Mr. Smisek, I am not a religious person. If I can be said to adhere to any confession, it is that primordial, preliterate one that has sprung forth everywhere ever since we beings were human: the covenant of sound. You and your associates have desecrated a work of transcendent beauty and blasphemed Music.

I demand that you remove at once all remaining traces of “Rhapsody in Blue” from the safety videos now being shown on United and Continental flights.

I fully appreciate that United Continental Holdings holds the rights to Gershwin’s composition and presumably to such “derivative works.” Yet I also know that as a graduate of Harvard Law, you must appreciate the difference between legal permission and moral propriety.

I would welcome the opportunity to sit with you so as to attempt to move your conscience to my conviction that we must humble ourselves before this sublime work. But for now I will not rest, I will not sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight, until I hear the end of this violation. And neither should you, for it is the abomination that brings desolation.

The final reckoning will not register which airline company boasted the most freshly painted fleet or ranked last in customer satisfaction. But there are some sacred goods of such high ideal as we instead are called to satisfy, goods that are not to be consumed but rather to consume. After all the fleets are returned to dust, these will remain.

Sincerely,
Austin Dacey

adacey@centerforinquiry.net'

Austin Dacey is a representative to the United Nations for the International Humanist and Ethical Union and author of The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights (Continuum, March 29, 2012).