Air travel reflections

Singapore is just across the Pacific from California, but the Pacific is unnecessarily wide (not intelligent design, in my view) so the flight is a sixteen hour trip with one stop. Because of the date line, one arrives home (eastbound), rather weirdly, an hour after leaving. The flights gave me much more time than I wanted to reflect on being carried around in an aluminum cigar.

There are about enough security screening stations most places now, but we’re still doing really silly things with them. I think the most infuriating is the systematic disarmament of passengers of the pocket knives with which they could emulate the 9/11 passengers on flight 93 should a bad guy get something really dangerous aboard. The screening is well known to be imperfect as regards guns and serious knives, so we have to expect a hijacker to get a real weapon on board now and then somehow. But the cockpit doors are locked now, so the passengers would have a fair chance to overpower the terrorist (or lunatic) before the plane could be steered into a building, and even the person sitting next to the fellow with the shoe bomb would have a good move at his or her disposal. In fact, I would feel much more comfortable if everyone who didn’t have a Swiss Army knife were lent one for the trip and given a short lecture, like the exit row catechism, about what to do just in case. I know, the hijacker would then have a little knife, too: still the cutlery corollary of the John Lott theory of deterrence works just fine in this context.

United served up a couple of very good meals (going) with nice tools except for the idiotic plastic knives among the stainless; Singapore Airlines had no problem passing out metal everything. I was not alarmed by all the table knives in circulation.

Mercifully it was a business class sixteen hours; if I’d been among the poor souls in the back this post would be a driveling babble. Here is an interesting list of seat pitches for all airlines. How can these really important differences in product quality persist, and why haven’t we forced airlines, Expedia, etc. to state these numbers every time they offer a reservation? I will do almost anything to get in a United Premier (or anyone’s exit row) economy seat, and I’m shy of six feet tall, but up to now, it’s been impossible to just buy it without an eightfold fare increase up to business class.

Northwest is still doing it wrong, in my view, and even United, which has a real extra-legroom…wait a minute, it’s not extra-legroom; the steerage seats are “criminally deficient legroom seats”!…section and has started to sell them, but not the right way either. A couple of years ago I pitched the following scheme to United with no success. (I still think I have the right model, and that the airlines’ continuing mismanagement of the legroom issue is a symptom of why they are all going broke except Southwest; management matters.)

My plan: 35″ pitch seating should be offered for a flat 15% premium on whatever fare the passenger is paying for a coach ticket (economy seats sell for up to 5 times the cheapest price). (The Premier seats are about 14% further apart than the others, though the actual leg space is more like 30% more because the seats themselves are the same size). On the average, then, five premium seats will sell for the price of the six regular ones that would take up the same fuselage space, which would leave the airline even with the same revenue. But on the cost side, it’s all gravy: 15% fewer transactions, fewer bags to handle, fewer meals to serve, fewer bodies to board and alight, and 15% less weight to carry. Why isn’t this an irresistible deal from the airline’s perspective, even if it thinks it has to give away some of the good seats to many-mile passengers?

Standardization is a wonderful thing. United provides a 12v special outlet at business class seats and it’s easy to buy a power supply for your laptop that fits it. (Some airlines are now using a plain car cigar lighter socket, but the travel power supply usually has both plugs). This is nice; I got a lot of work done (OK, and watched a lot of movie) on the flight west, having been sure to pack the right equipment. I did the same coming home, and imagine my surprise to discover that SQ helpfully provides a plain US 110v AC outlet instead. I did turn out to have the regular power supply in my carryon, but I might just as well have put it in my checked bag and been limited to one battery life. If I were a Singaporean whose alternative to the 12v connector is a completely different shape of plug, or actually from anywhere except the Americas, I would have been pretty sore–would a traveller between Singapore and Frankfurt have a US plug adapter?

Why should it be necessary to ask what kind of power supply the seat has when making a reservation? As Tom Schelling pointed out, even though it’s slightly safer to drive on the left as the Brits (and Japanese, and Indians, and about half the world) do, it’s more important that we all do it the same way in a given country. (Why safer? One of my favorite trivia: most people’s defensive reflex raises the right arm to the upper left, and the left arm below towards the lower right. On a steering wheel, this takes you into oncoming traffic in right-hand driving but onto the shoulder driving on the left. )

Civil aviation, I read somewhere, has not made a penny of net profit overall from Kitty Hawk to today. They were ineptly regulated for a long time, but I can’t help thinking the people who run these businesses are not the aces from their family decks.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.