Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pack'em in Airline Seating

I made a comment a while back about the cattle car coach seating in today’s air travel.  Several responded by asking if the planes are full, which they are, and then pointed out that the public desires cheap airfares and willingly sits in uncomfortable conditions, so what’s the problem?  Others observed that airlines are finally turning profits that can come only from packing as many people into as small a space as possible, so what’s the problem?

I wonder if the reported increase in disruptive, sometimes violent passenger behavior might be a symptom of a problem, or maybe problems.  I can’t find any comprehensive data on disruptive passengers, but then I haven’t looked very hard either.  However, I did stumble on a study of Canadian domestic airlines that showed a steady rate of about twenty incidents per year until 2008 when the numbers lurched into a rate of around one hundred per year.  That’s a big jump in a short time.  I wonder if U.S. airlines would report something similar.

Airline representatives blame disruptive behavior mostly on alcohol and drugs, so I guess 2008 must have been a year in which alcohol and drug use exploded among airline passengers.  Could be, but I suggest another cause, and that is the inhuman conditions of passenger comfort that create tipping points for the increase in disruptive behavior.  I understand that people willingly submit themselves to those conditions because, if they want to fly somewhere, they have no choice.  The same might be said for steerage on the old transatlantic ocean liners.  That doesn’t make the conditions any less uncomfortable, painful, intrusive, stressful, and ripe for defensive and offensive disruptive behavior.  Let’s put it this way, we are painfully aware that overcrowding prisons creates conditions in which violent behavior is likely.  Overcrowding airplanes does the same.  It’s a confined, regimented environment from which there is no escape.  The preflight briefing makes it clear that flight attendants are in charge and must be obeyed.  Fellow passengers are harried, nervous, doing what they can to preserve the sanctity of what small private space they can acquire, and ready to take offense.  

Drugs and alcohol may contribute to the situation, but the conditions themselves are designed to encourage disruptive passenger behavior.  I’m surprised that we don’t hear more stories than we already do.  

I imagine that behavioral psychologists can pinpoint the smallest amount of space an average person can tolerate for how long, and that calculation has something to do with how airlines design seating configurations.  Add to that some enticing advertising luring people to exotic places for what appears to be a reasonable price, and the result is a well orchestrated campaign to pack’em in, tell'em they’re having a good time, and send'em home tired, frustrated, and broke knowing that they can be seduced again next year. 

I imagine that those same psychologists can also identify an amount of space needed for a range of persons to be reasonably content for some period of time.  Maybe that amount of space would reduce airline seating and require an increase in fares to compensate, but my guess is that it would not make much of a change, if any, in profitability.  True, some people who might otherwise fly somewhere would stay home or find another mode of transportation.  A few of my respondents called that elitist, arguing that the pack’em in like sardines schemes provide worthy benefits to the masses.  That doesn’t smell right.  It smacks too much of a lack of respect for the dignity of ordinary people and deliberate psychological abuse in defense of profit. 


So, what do you think?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rabbit Holes and Equity

Somewhere on the internet, someone suggested blogs on the question of inequality.  It’s hard to know what that means, but I assume it has something to do with the current publicity about inequality of income and net worth.  Not to make too much of it, but one might start with the observation that the issue did not become prominent until the white middle class became aware that they were slip-sliding downward on a hill tilted in favor of a few already at the top.  However, starting there would probably take us down a rabbit hole.  Suffice it to say that the white middle class remains, at least for a few more years, a sort of barometer of general economic well being, and when they are slip-sliding we had better pay attention because the whole system is hurting.

Having said that, I’d like to move in another direction and suggest that inequality is not as important as inequity.  Equality cannot be achieved across the breadth of a population, nor would we want that.  Part of what makes life interesting, challenging, and rewarding are the differences between us; our different abilities, interests, tastes, personalities, and so forth.  We are, and want to be, unequal in so many ways.  Equity is another matter.  Equity is more about the well known level playing field.  We need to strive for a national ethos that places its highest value on equity, on the assurance that no obstacle is placed in the path of any person to achieve what they are capable of achieving.  Recognizing and removing existing obstacles is a start, and an often a difficult one because we don’t easily recognize existing obstacles if they are in someone else’s way, but not in our way.  Beyond that, it also means a cultural bent toward providing the tools, education, training, and policies that are equitably available to all persons to aid them in achieving what they are able to achieve.  The early advocates of universal public education understood that.  They hoped for a nation in which every child got a first class education at public expense instead of the British system of second rate or non-existent education for most while those who could afford it got a good education in private schools.

The last century produced enormous strides in understanding what is needed for an organization (or nation) to perform well.  Researchers such as Deming, Bennis, Herzberg, Maslow, Kendrick, Likert, Lewin, and others all agreed on a few fundamentals that can be summed up as providing an environment in which each person can succeed (not will succeed).  Doing that requires the discipline of assuring that the right education, training, equipment and quality materials to do the job are available to each without prejudice.  It also requires a constant vigilance of the environment along with dedication to research and development to assure that methods change with technology and social conditions.  That’s the hub of equity, and I think we have two problems with it today. 

First, the dominant American culture has historically been the myth of a generic white middle class that is often blind to the inequity that rules the lives of others who are not a part of it.  That’s changing rapidly, if not smoothly, with claims, counter claims, and taunts along the lines of, “You think you had a hard time of it, let me tell you how hard it was for me.”  Just the same, it is changing.  Part of that is the growing recognition that we need to change our definition of the dominant American culture to accommodate diverse races and ethnicities.  Maybe that will help us see more clearly the obstacles that are in our way, and in the way of others who are not like us.  

Second, we have stumbled into  a set of tax laws and compensation practices that have become so warped that only a very few are able to benefit from economic growth.  It’s the 1% phenomena of popular media fame wherein, even if equity is broadly distributed, there is little likelihood that rewards will be commensurate with achievement.  Declining purchasing power through stagnant wages for the majority of the population while a certain very small minority are able to reap unheard of riches is a prescription for national collapse.

Oddly enough, it appears to me that a large portion of what remains of the mythical white middle class has sided with the oligarchical tendencies of the so called 1% for reasons that I do not understand when it is obvious that it can lead only to their continued slide toward the bottom.  And that, my friends, is the entrance to the rabbit hole.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Refugees or Illegal Aliens?

We have just returned from several weeks away that included seven days exploring historic Istanbul from its famous sites to its slums.  It’s an enormous city so seven days was not enough to allow much beyond the older parts of it centering on the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.  Apart from that, we also came face-to-face with the influx of Syrian refugees who have left, or simply bypassed, the refugee camps along the border.

What struck me first was the public and private recognition of them as refugees, not illegal aliens.  How unlike our own recognition of the influx of persons escaping the violence of their homelands to seek shelter and opportunity in the U.S.  Many, perhaps most, Syrian refugees in Istanbul squat in the slums.  Some find work, but many beg, illegally peddle cheap goods on the street, or pickpocket unwary tourists.  On the other hand, they are systematically moved into the nation’s universal health care program.  Children are entered into the school system, and adults are encouraged to learn how to fit into the Turkish way of doing things.

No doubt there are many holes in the system, and not everyone is happy with them being there, but it’s so different from our own stomping Rumpelstiltskin  like hysteria at illegal (read criminal) aliens masquerading as children and teens, or our outrage at the illegal, mostly Mexican, adults who have been here for years building our houses, landscaping our lawns, and tending our shops at low wages with no benefits while simultaneously paying into a Social Security system from which they are unlikely to ever get anything.


I wonder why we find it so hard to lean anything from others?  Oh well, we’re Americans.  What could a second rate nation such as Turkey have to teach us?

Columbus Day!?

Today is Columbus Day, and throughout the internet he is being condemned as a reprehensible manifestation of all that is bad about the western conquest of the Americas.  I guess there is a legitimate point being made.  It’s true that when I was in grade school we were told that Columbus discovered America, which opened up the New World for European colonization that led eventually to the American War of Independence.  But, since I was raised in Minnesota, we were also reminded that Scandinavians beat him by centuries, so there!

There was never much said about the violent conquest of lands belonging to others.  It was more about the opening up of a vast, mostly empty land abounding in possibilities of new life, opportunity, and freedom for those willing to face its challenges.  Later, when we lived in the NYC area, Columbus Day was a celebration of Italian heritage with little publicity given to the man himself.  In any case, I’m willing to give Columbus a break.  He was a man of his age, not of ours.  He had the courage to set out on a journey into the unknown on ships no more sea worthy than large dinghies, and, from a European point of view, he did discover a new land that inspired the ensuing years of European voyages of discovery.  Those voyages redefined what the world was and could become.


It’s not much of a holiday where I live.  Except for a notation on calendars, life goes on as normal.  With that in mind, the effort to rebrand the day to honor indigenous peoples is well intentioned but misses the target.  A more pragmatic solution might be to eliminate Columbus Day as a federal holiday, perhaps giving federal employees the time off as a floating holiday.  Then establish another day at another time in the year to honor indigenous peoples.  My own choice would be December 29, the date of the massacre at Wounded Knee, but who wants to remember that during “the holidays.”  As an alternative I might suggest June 25, remembering the victory over Custer at Little Bighorn.  More important, as we have moved Black history into a more visible place in school curricula, we should do the same with Indian history.  It’s a rich, colorful history that goes far beyond and is more interesting than the romanticized fiction of a peaceful people at one with nature and each other.