If you’re not insulted by American Airlines’ new ad campaign, here’s why you should be

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If the lack of legroom in your economy class seat doesn’t make you uncomfortable, perhaps American Airlines’ latest ad campaign will.

In an era when airline profits are at an all-time high, a new American Airlines ad campaign suggests that passengers need to buck up and have a better attitude about the less than human conditions we’re being sold. Despite what announcements are made in flight, let’s face facts: We don’t have much of a choice in airlines.

If successful, the new advertisements intend to take passengers’ focus away from the cabin features and in-flight amenities that used to be included in the ticket price but have slowly degraded in quality or been replaced by monetized versions. The ad suggests a renewed focus on a more civilized, hospitable version of reality, where passengers are less moved by things and more moved by experiences.

It’s almost as if American Airlines wants us to return in our minds to that bygone era when fellow passengers had manners and looked out for one another. No, not the 1950s — but late 2001.

For a few months at the end of 2001, Americans were not so eager to get on an airplane, and the airlines were reeling from the collective fear of terrorism following the deadliest attack in the history of aviation. At the time, U.S. airlines successfully lobbied Congress for a $5 billion bailout and another $10 billion in loan guarantees, and flew many flights at a loss. The economic slowdown, rising fuel costs and the growth of low-cost carriers left the major airlines vulnerable.

In late 2001, passengers who needed to fly summoned the courage to get back on airplanes, and nobody was telling them what to think or how to feel. Perhaps those travelers experienced a feeling of solidarity with their fellow passengers and the flight crew. We felt this way not because we were told to, but because we understood we had discovered a New Normal, which involved admitting we had been vulnerable.

Just days before the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, there’s another group of Americans who don’t want to be told how to feel on board an airplane: the families and friends of the passengers whose lives were taken on Sept. 11, 2001.

Those passengers who bravely faced and fought terrorists on board their flights and who serve as role models for how we should treat our fellow community members, neighbors — and yes, seatmates — those passengers didn’t need lessons in obedience or civility. Instead, those passengers became our teachers, showing us what it means to sacrifice, to act in the interest of others and to leave a legacy of greatness.

I represented many of the families of passengers who died on board airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001. These families have carried a heavy burden during the last fifteen years, and it should not be suggested they “make the best of their situation.” We know that’s not what makes people great.

A little bit of dignity goes a long way. As American’s departing president Scott Kirby takes a $13 million balloon check along with a homologous position at United Airlines, American might stop suggesting that material things are not important, and start showing us what is important. Perhaps then the American passenger will be in a position to reflect how we feel about our in-flight experience, our flight crew and our seatmate — because the feeling will be mutual.