What’s in a Name?

Let’s jump right in: I’ve never really liked flying. I’m not great with heights. There’s just something about a 500-ton hunk of metal flying at 35,000 feet that seems like a terrible idea.

(Funny coming from a guy who has already flown 16 times in two months and is preparing for another on Wednesday.)

So you can imagine how nervous I was when booking my 14-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to London. Especially when the same result kept appearing as, by far, the most affordable and direct option: Malaysia Airlines.

The brand likely strikes fear into most people nowadays, and rightly so: After two fatal incidents in 2014, that fear might not dissipate for decades. In fact, I didn’t even tell my parents which airline I was taking to London because I knew it would give them heart attacks (sorry Mom and Dad!).

After digging through reviews and articles claiming all-around fantastic experiences before and after the two incidents on Malaysia Airlines, I felt convinced that the likelihood of lightning striking thrice (I know, it’s not even supposed to strike twice, and that’s enough about lightning strikes and planes now…) was minimal.

I’ll admit, I was still nervous. I’m always a little nervous before a flight, but getting on an airline with such a recent troubled history was more unsettling than usual.

Then, a funny thing happened: The flight was AWESOME.

The crew was polite, speedy and reassuring. The in-flight entertainment options were endless. The actual comfort level of the seats was well above average (didn’t hurt that I was the only person in my row). The meals were delicious. And other than occasional, standard turbulence, there was no cause for alarm.

In my research, I learned that Malaysia Airlines was one of only a few in the entire world to receive a five-star rating from CloudTrax, a widely-respected aviation rating website, which takes into account everything from safety to cleanliness to timeliness. For context, my beloved Southwest Airlines, which has never had a fatality in its 48-year history, is rated as a three-star airline.

I saved more than $400 and nearly half a day in traveling by trusting that Malaysia Airlines’ prior reputation preceded them, and accepting that the two issues from last year were very unlucky outliers.

Now, I’m safely on the ground in London wondering why I put so much effort into freaking out over a brand name.

This next attempt at comparison may be futile, but let’s give it a shot:

A dark-skinned man with a beard and a turban at an airport might put other passengers on edge because that is the perceived picture of your average flight-jacking terrorist. In reality, he is just traveling home from a business trip, and all he can think about is seeing his children for the first time in a week.

A white girl with tattoos on her neck, gauge earrings and a punk-rock wardrobe might entice someone walking by to think she’s a dope-smoking high school dropout who sells her body and worships Satan. Really, she’s probably a polite young woman with a college degree who happens to like Slipknot and body art.

A black teenager with his hood on might scream “dangerous gang member” or “robber” on the surface. More than likely, he is simply walking to school with nothing but his favorite album playing through headphones under that hood, and nothing but a few textbooks in his bag.

I could list these examples forever, but you certainly get the point. It is human nature to make connections between people and their “categories,” if you will, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip it’s to never judge a book by its cover.

Inherently, everyone is the same. We all want to have fun and succeed and be loved. Skin tones, languages and personal beliefs won’t change that.

I’ve met some of the most fascinating people who, upon first glance, fit one of those preconceived biases we all know so well. And I can tell you that despite whatever religious, cultural and physical differences, the average human is just as curious and compassionate and normal as you are.

There are differences in each culture that make them unique, but consider:

Australian parents still complain about politics, taxes and their children’s shenanigans. Brazilian college students still play drinking games and tell embarrassing stories about each other. British teenagers still bullshit over YouTube videos and obsess over their appearances. Filipino children still beg their parents for an ice cream every time the cart rolls by.

Admittedly, I’m stretching this metaphor pretty far comparing racism, stereotyping, etc. to brand loyalty of airlines. But the point is made: Just because someone’s appearance triggers an intimidating connotation in your mind doesn’t mean they aren’t really a five-star airline.

It’s worth our time to give people (and airlines!) the benefit of the doubt. We don’t know who we’re missing out on meeting when we let our minds lump people outside our culture who look, speak and pray similarly into one big group characterized by a few bad apples.

People are good and interesting and intelligent. Maybe sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and just trust in that.

Once you get on board, you’ll probably realize how foolish your biases were because people are generally safe to be around.

It seems exceptionally rare that they’ll crash and burn and take you down with them.

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