The Rothfuss Airplane Dilemma

Issue08_Rothfuss_200x289On last week’s episode of the Untitled Rothfuss podcast, The Name of the Wind author Patrick Rothfuss told a really interesting story about a hard drive and an airplane. I’ll summarize it here so I can get to the dissection of what is a really interested moral dilemma, but I recommend checking out the podcast if you have the chance.

In short, Rothfuss accidentally left a thumb drive containing the contents of his long-awaited Book 3 at the airport security checkpoint, and he didn’t realize it until the plane started to taxi. He got in touch with his assistant, who called security to see if they had the thumb drive, but they said they didn’t have it.

While the plane waited to take off, Rothfuss started to panic that the thumb drive had been thrown away or stolen off the security conveyor belt (I think he says it is the only copy of the book). He says on the podcast that it wasn’t an actual panic attack–the kind when you lose control of your body–but rather just extreme panic.

So he told the attendant he had to get off the plane. Plane attendants take heed to listen to that sort of thing, so they did. They taxied back to the gate, got Rothfuss off the plane, and then took off without him. Rothfuss eventually found the thumb drive at the security checkpoint, and he estimates that the commotion caused the flight to be delayed by about 10 minutes.

You can tell on the podcast that he feels immensely guilty about it. Effectively, he impacted the schedules of hundreds of people to locate something that he shouldn’t have left at security in the first place (and should have on a password-protected, backed up thumb drive at worse).

But he also reasons that quite a few people could have been affected if he hadn’t turned around the plane. If someone spoiled Book 3 online–gave it away for free–Rothfuss’s employees and many of the employees at the company that publishes his book may have been affected. Many of the proceeds from his books also go to a charity he started called Worldbuilders, so many of the impoverished people helped by the charity could have been affected.

So I’m wondering two things: One, do you think he was justified in turning the plane around? Two, is there any circumstance–other than an actual medical emergency–that you could foresee yourself doing the same?

My take: It’s a really close call, but I don’t think he should have turned around the plane. The analogy I’d use is if you’re driving on the highway and you miss the exit. One type of driver will realize their mistake a few seconds to late, slam on the brakes, drive onto the shoulder, and cut onto the exit ramp, inconveniencing and potentially endangering everyone else on the road. The other type of driver will acknowledge the mistake, drive to the next exit, and circle back, inconveniencing only themselves. Rothfuss could have done the same–he could have flow back to Indianapolis immediately after arriving, or he could have arranged for someone else in Indianapolis to go to airport security to find the thumb drive.

As for the other question–would I ever do it–I’m hard-pressed to think of a scenario where I could justify turning the plane around, especially since if it’s that important, I could get on a return flight as soon as I arrive (or close to it). Leaving something in the airport would suck, but odds are it’s already gone or already stashed by security.

However, I’m not trying to judge Rothfuss’ decision. He seems like a reasonable guy who is considerate of others, and I can’t imagine the feeling of leaving what amounts to a few million dollars in a thumb drive at airport security.

What do you think?

4 thoughts on “The Rothfuss Airplane Dilemma”

  1. I think your last point is a good one to ponder. Suppose you’d left your wallet. In it is three million dollars–half of it is yours and the other half is earmarked to pay your employees for a year and to fund a charity. Do you turn the plane around or do you fly to Indy & catch the next plane? Does framing the question this way influence your answer at all?

    • That’s a good way to frame it, especially for the Rothfuss scenario. I really think it depends on where I left the wallet. Rothfuss left it at security, where security was sure to pick it up. Whether he went to pick it up now or 5 hours later wouldn’t impact the position of the wallet. If, however, I left it on my seat in the terminal…damn, I don’t know. All logic points to either (a) the wallet being stolen by the time I get back to it, in which case I can’t get it anyway, or (b) someone turning in the wallet and the airport earmarking it for me (again, making the timing of the retrieval of the wallet irrelevant). But of course it’s easy for me to say that, because I’m not sitting on a plane knowing that $3 million is 500 feet away from me in the terminal.

  2. I was happy to see you write about the Rothfuss airport incident, because it’s something that has been on my mind since listening to last week’s podcast.

    It’s a tough call trying to decide if his de-planing was the correct decision, but there was one part of the story that made me feel like his getting off the plane was the right thing to do, despite the fact that it likely impacted other travelers. During the part where he had his vitals taken by the paramedic and learned that the results showed elevated levels close to what you would expect to see in someone having a real panic attack, I thought that was a good indication that he made the correct choice. If he had stayed on the plane and continued to dwell on the lost drive, his health may have continued to get worse and he could have had a full blown panic attack while in the air– I’m going to guess that such a thing would not have been pleasant for anyone on board.

    In the end, I was glad to hear it was recovered safely, because the possible butterfly effect of the unpublished and unedited 3rd book being released early would have probably caused more damage to more people (the employees at the publishing company, Rothfuss’ employees, and especially beneficiaries of Worldbuilders charity work) than a 10 minute delay for the fellow passengers on the plane that day.

    • Katy: That’s a great point. I hadn’t thought about his condition getting worse and potentially causing a much bigger issue, but it’s definitely possible.


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