David Cogswell | January 11, 2016 1:00 PM ET
Thinking Like an Airline CEO
Sometimes when I board an airplane and I’m squeezing myself into my seat I find myself thinking like an airline CEO. I find this to be especially true if I am assigned to a middle seat with people jammed up against both shoulders and a silent turf war going on over who gets to put his elbow on the one-inch armrest between the seats.
Of course I don’t really know how an airline CEO thinks, I can only imagine. Airline CEOs occupy a space far beyond me, a lofty perch from which they view the massive air traffic systems they oversee. I don’t know how they think but I can imagine based on what I have experienced from taking hundreds of flights over the years.
During that time there has been a shrinking, so slow as to be almost imperceptible, of passenger space. Although you don’t perceive the incremental changes as they are taking place, at some point it dawns on you that there has definitely been a diminishment.
What happened to the room for my knees? Where did the space go?
It went to other passengers. The airlines have sliced and diced the cabin space until they have figured out how to get the highest number of passengers into a plane to raise the revenue.
This is only natural; one might say inevitable. The job of the CEO is to maximize shareholder value. That is his legal mandate under corporate law. He may be a nice guy, friendly, personable, caring, etc. But that’s beside the point. Being nice and personable, etc., is only relevant to the extent that it affects the bottom line. Nothing else matters. The bottom line trumps all. A CEO has one job, and if he doesn’t do it, he’ll be out on his ear and they’ll bring in someone else who will.
It’s not his fault. That’s the system.
And profit alone is not enough. Investors want to see growth. It’s not good enough to follow the old model of a family business in which the owner tries to sustain a good business to support the family and serve the community. In the corporate world, you have to achieve growth.
Corporations are all about growth. You need to produce a percentage of growth every year. If you increased revenue last year by squeezing more seats into the cabins of your planes, this year you have to come up with some other way to produce that growth rate. Maybe you can get a few more seats into the cabins, but whether or not that is possible, one way or another you have to do something that will match the growth rate you produced the year before.
Hence the space-diminishment creep.
The massive size of these airline transportation systems is an important factor in this process. We are dealing with gigantic numbers. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Transportation says there were 8,107,135 domestic flights, about a third commercial, and 1,429,929 international flights.
American Airlines claims to have operated 6,700 flights a day in 2014, roughly 2.5 million for the year. That is a lot of flights. If you could squeeze another row on the plane and get six more passengers in, you can multiply that additional revenue by about 2.5 million and produce a huge amount of additional profit. It’s virtually irresistible.
So you can see why the airlines’ directors are wracking their brains to figure out ways to squeeze more people onto planes.
I often think of these kinds of things as I am moving through the airline system, just to entertain myself and provide a distraction from the dull drudgery of the flying experience. I imagine boards of directors earnestly, even frantically studying floor plans of their airplanes, looking for some heretofore unnoticed underutilized space, trying to figure out ways to get more people on board.
I thought of maybe adding a floor in the middle and turning the flight into a two-story configuration, something like the half-floor architecture portrayed in the comedy-of-the-absurd movie "Being John Malkevich."
With that arrangement, there may not be room to stand fully erect, but people on airplanes are seated most of the time, so that doesn’t really matter. You could sacrifice the privilege of being able to stand up straight and the increased revenue would be substantial.
Maybe they could find new ways to arrange people’s bodies so they could fit more of them together. Perhaps some kind of stacking scheme could fit people together the way some kinds of chairs are designed to be stacked. You could fit the people together in an interlocking configuration like Playmobil figures in the shipping carton.
As these thoughts are drifting through my idle mind they seem wacky and funny enough to me -- until I found out that this is actually pretty close to what is really happening.
The airline visionaries are considering ways to insert another floor in the cabins to create a two-tiered seating arrangement. And they are also toying with the idea of alternating people front to back, so you might be facing your neighbor, which may make you a little uncomfortable, but it would allow the airlines to pack many more people onto the plane.
This is what’s coming. It’s sneaking up on you. You will be conditioned to it incrementally. It will all happen gradually so that, the airlines hope, you won’t notice.
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