The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other. The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles and care for our comfort and experience. Over time, we start emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another.
Thus, an industry (in this case the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, can in effect change the very mechanics of human interactions.
Cause and effect –
It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve had the joy of flying from coast to coast via the friendly skies, and I wasn’t exactly complaining about it. Still, I kind of dig the left coast, so whenever work or pleasure give me an opportunity to check out the Pacific Ocean from our lovely shores, I usually jump at the chance.
So here I am, in San Jose/Fremont/San Francisco (yes, all at once – or something like that) after a relatively uneventful three-airport hop-along that started at 4:00am Monday morning in Greenville, SC, and ended on time (surpisingly) in in sunny San Jose, CA.
That’s right: On time.
I experienced exactly zero delays. Sure, the planes were ridiculously full, but I guess that’s good so I can’t complain about that.
And we didn’t crash, which is always nice too.
All in all, I have to say that Delta Airlines – which I’ve had a tolerate-hate relationship with for years now – did better than I expected. They even kept me hydrated and snacked (“fed” would be pushing the semantics) throughout my impossibly uncomfortable flight over these beautiful United States.
And that is where I have to hit on a cliche of air travel, but dammit, would it hurt commercial aeroplane designers (yes, I’ve decided to spell it the British way) to develop seats actually DESIGNED FOR HUMAN BEINGS? Let’s go through this again: I am 6′. I weigh 165lbs. Compared to most American men I share a pressurized cabin with, I am nowhere near “big.” Yet, my seats today were so small and caved-in that I couldn’t find a comfortable position for even ten minutes. (My neck is killing me.)
And this comes from a guy who spends upwards of 3 hours on a time-trial bicycle, mind you.
Aside from the lack of comfort (or should I say – complete victory of discomfort-inspired design), there is the issue of space management: It’s bad enough that seats are designed to keep you awake for the entire trip and ensure weeks of headaches and neck pain, but they’re also too narrow and close together. It is physically impossible to do anything with your elbows except a) shove them violently into your neighbors’ skulls in a snarling fit of air rage, of b) hunker down and curl your spine into a crooked little ball so that your elbows may rest peacefully on your thighs.
For five f#$%ing hours. Great.
“Would you like crackers or peanuts, sir?”
Ungh… As soon… as… I… uncurl myself…
But that’s nothing new. The comfortable coach seats of the Super Caravelles are a thing of the past, so there is really no point in dwelling on the instruments of torture designed to keep us “safely” secured during flight while maximizing passenger volume per flight – which, after all, is all that matters: Get as many of us sorry saps on a plane as inhumanly possible.
Trust me, if airlines could find a way to stack us on top of each other to double a plane’s capacity, they would. (Hey, if that meant having a cot instead of a seat, I’m all for it. Strap me in!)
No, what’s new is the apathy I ran into today. It was kind of a numbness to things which, as someone who grew up in a big crowded city, I find a bit odd. Typically, a person reacts in some way to unpleasantness, like getting bumped by someone on the street for example… but I find that human behavior in airports now no longer answers to the same set of rules that we normally live by out here in the real world.
Next time you’re in an airport (or on a plane,) try this little Fight Club-ish experiment: Bump into somebody. Bump into them hard. Hard enough to knock them forward or back or sideways. Bump into them so they have to take a step to keep themselves from falling – and keep going. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t apologize. Just go about your business as if the person you bumped into didn’t exist.
But have someone watch their reaction for you.
Bad mojo, and the tragic fate of manners -
What I found today is that in an airport or on a plane, people will completely ignore one another even if they bump into each other, kind of like the way cows ignore each other while they are grazing. I also never noticed how much people in airports and on aeroplanes (British spelling again) bump into other people. It’s insane. Traveling has officially become a full contact sport.
There’s the guy whose backpack collides with your shoulder as he tries to squeeze by during the boarding process (for whatever reason since his seat is already assigned and we aren’t leaving until everyone is on board – so what’s the rush?). There’s the guy who finds a way to kick you in the toes while walking up the aisle to go take a leak – even though your foot is safely tucked in under the seat in front of you. (How he manages to do this, I have no earthly idea. Retractable evil clown shoes is all I can come up with.) There’s the woman whose out-of-control waddling knocks your arm off your seat’s armrest just as you were finally drifting off to sleep. And then there’s the murderous snack cart of doom, with its blunt edges and 1500 pounds of hammered steel fury cold-heartedly coming down the aisle. Yeah. Getting smacked in the elbow by surprise with this infernal bone-crushing instrument of Hades is always the highlight of any cross-country flight.
But seriously: Put us (Homo-Sapiens) anywhere near an airport, and we start to bump into each other like Vista screensaver bubbles. Either – as a species – our peripheral vision is getting worse (in which case we need to get the human genome project working on that, stat!) or we’re turning into bumbling morons who can’t even stand up anymore without f%&#ing that up too. Who knows. It might be the next logical step in our idiocratic de-evolution.
What I do know is this: When I was but a wee little French boy, I was taught something called “manners.” Don’t ask me to explain what manners are. It’s too complicated… But they have something to do with being polite and considerate of others whenever possible. Manners involve doing things like saying “please” and “thank you.” They involve – at least in the Western world – not burping in the company of others, not being ruthlessly flatulent (especially in a car or an aeroplane), and not saying bad words like f%*k or s&!t around your grandparents unless they say them first. Manners are what keep you from chewing with your mouth open or cutting in line at the movie theater, or treating people like they are cattle.
Manners, as far as I remember (and I am not that old) also involve apologizing when you bump into someone. Here’s an example:
*Bump* *Eye contact.* *Embarrassed expression on your face* “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you.” *compassionate and apologetic smile* *exit*
That’s right: When you bump into someone, the civilized thing to do is to make eye contact, give the offended party a sad facial expression, and verbally apologize. Flatly, even, if need be.
You know that apathy I mentioned earlier? It apparently applies to manners as well: Not only do people seem to no longer try not to bump into each other in the first place, but they also don’t seem to give a flying monkey’s arse about apologizing when they do. They simply go on with their bumbling self-absorbed iPod-adorned biz as if the bump hadn’t happened at all.
At the mall, in the street, at work, people apologize to each other when they accidentally collide. Heck, they do all sorts of crazy things to avoid collisions in the first place. But in airports or at 35,000 feet, their behavior changes. Which brings me to this conclusion: If people’s behavior is impacted by their environment, what is it about our nation’s airports and air travel experience that makes so many of folks act like selfish apathetic oafs?
Cause and effect: Policies of dehumanization and the downward spiral of human interactions -
Earlier, I used bovine imagery to describe certain people. That was not an accident. Treat people like cattle, and sooner or later, they will start acting like cattle. Treat people like a commodity, and sooner or later, they start treating each other like a commodity. That’s just science.
The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other: The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles, and care for our comfort and experience. At some point, we started emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another to the point of being patently apathetic and rude… And we let it happen.
Thus, through a series of deliberate decisions regarding simple business functions like HR and customer service, an industry (in this case, the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, in effect began to change the very mechanics of human interactions.
The Silver Lining and a bit of common sense –
That’s scary and sad… but it’s also a little bit exciting because it means that the opposite can also be true: On the flip side, an industry (or a brand, if influential enough) can create an atmosphere of good will which will be contagious in the very same way.
An airline with friendly staff, comfortable seats, a painless back-to-front boarding process (come on people, is that so hard to figure out?!), in-flight snacks that don’t make us feel like we’re being nickeled-and-dimed, and maybe even flight attendants who don’t look like Wal-Mart greeters, don’t act like we spat in their ham sandwich, and (one can dream) actually treat passengers like valued customers instead of a pain in their arses might balance things out and restore civilized behavior in and around airports. Maybe.
An airline like that might even help rescue the entire industry by setting a shining example for everyone, and setting a new – achievable – set of standards.
Am I dreaming? Am I naive? Don’t even go there. Here’s my take on this: A smile doesn’t cost a thing.
The lack of smiles across the majority of an organization, however, can cost you the death of a brand – at the very least.
It isn’t rocket science.
A smile is never a detail.
The value of vision, the role of standards, and what we should really worry about -
Fifteen years ago, I used to fly Sabena, Delta, PanAm, and British Caledonian between the US and Europe. Back then, flight attendants were good looking, friendly, professional, proud of their airlines and their occupation, and always willing to help passengers have a comfortable (if not pleasant) experience. Don’t even try to call me shallow for mentioning good looking as an element of my list. Airlines, just like the military once had standards which make sense in light of what they are trying to accomplish: While the military once had high standards in regards to physical fitness, the airlines had high standards in terms of passenger experience. Both made sense then, and still do now. Yet, here we are.
I guess this is what happens when you allow your standards as a brand, as an organization, as the practical execution of someone’s vision, to go down the drain. Where flight attendants were once attractive, energetic, friendly, pleasant people, they now tend to be aging, bitter-acting, unpleasant air scrooges with a chip on their shoulder and a fading ability to smile.
Where air travel was once a glamorous, exciting, relatively painless experience, it has now become the absolute worst way to travel in the US. Taking the bus is more fun than flying, and that’s saying something because bus systems in this country aren’t exactly great.
But beyond all that, my saddest observation from this dull, uncomfortable, disappointing day of unpleasantness wasn’t the fact that the flight attendants were mildly ill-mannered old ladies with painted-on eyebrows and mismatched uniforms in need of a good pressing. It wasn’t the fact that the seats were three sizes too small. It wasn’t even even the fact that I got scraped, bumped, kicked and shoved without even the hint of an apology or acknowledgment from any of the offending parties. No, it was something infinitely more subtle than that – but much scarier in light of all of this, because it speaks to the depth of apathy that we are now reaching as an airport-dwelling society: As we were flying over some of the most breathtaking deserts and canyons that went on for miles and miles and miles – and I am talking National Geographic cover-worthy landscapes here; absolutely stunning stuff – no one on the plane seemed to care. People just sat there in their uncomfortable seats, eyes glued to their laptop screens or the latest exciting issue of Sky Mall or just staring blankly into space while these gorgeous landscapes glided by. I walked up and down the plane, looking for a better vantage point since I had an aisle seat, and watched as traveler after traveler, curious about what I was looking at through their portholes, glanced down at the gorgeous mosaic of colors and textures carved out by millions of years of planetary evolution… and looked away, bored and unimpressed.
That level of apathy and emotional disconnect surprised me… and made me a little sad.
It’s one thing for people to stop being cordial and compassionate towards each other. But when people start not caring about powerful, genuine beauty when it is right there in front of them, then I think there’s reason to worry.
We’re losing something here. Something we should fight a little harder to hold on to because we can’t afford for it to slip away.
What does any of this have to do with brands? I’ll tell you:
Brands do not reflect cultures; they affect them.
As brand stewards, give some thought to the impact that your brand (from a personal microbrand to a global megabrand) has had on people in the past, what impact it has on people now, and what impact you want it to have on people for decades to come. Is your brand contributing to a broken system and a downward spiral of apathy, or to an improvement in people’s quality of life?
This line of thinking may not seem as black and red as your P&L report, but it is well worth thinking about because it is at the core of everything your brand stands for.
And if your brand stands for nothing, it is nothing more than a complete waste of space.
So at the very least, try to instill in your employees, clients, co-workers, and customers a sense that smiles are contagious. That they are good for business in the same way that they are good for the soul. That without genuine human interactions, without emotional engagement between you, your brand, and your audience, you have failed not only as a brand steward, but also as a human being, which is a whole lot of failure.
In short, make us care – by showing us you do.
Smile. Say thank you. Say please. Say sorry. Chew with your mouth closed. Open the door for ladies. Give up your seat on a crowded bus. And perhaps most important of all, don’t squeeze out a toxic cloud of digested chili cheese taco in a crowded place without at least apologizing for your lack of manners.
It’s the little things, after all.
Have a great Wednesday, everyone.
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