inequality in the skies
I’m on a plane right now, flying from Sacramento back to Albany. And sitting here I’m reminded of how air travel itself reflects the growing inequality of society in a trivial, but suggestive, way.
Planes have always had first-class and passenger cabins, at least as far as I know. If the Titanic had this distinction, I’m guessing it was in place from the beginning of commercial aviation.
But for most of my adult life, planes—at least the ones I usually fly on, from one U.S. city to another—looked something like this:
Just roughing it out here, this means that 7% of the passengers used about 15% of the room, with the other 93% using 85% of the cabin space. Such a plane would have a Gini index of about 8. (For reference, the U.S. Gini is about 48, and the global one is around 65.)
Domestic airlines have pretty much moved to a three-tier system now, in which the traditional first-class seating is supplemented by “Economy Plus,” in which you get an extra three or four inches of legroom over the standard “Economy” seats. I, as usual, am crammed into what should really be called “Sardine Class”—where seats now commonly provide a pitch of 31”, a few inches down from what most planes had a decade ago.
(The only time I’ve ever sprung for Economy Plus was on the way back from ASA Vegas, when for some reason I had to fly to San Francisco in order to take a red-eye back to Albany. It cost about $60 for me to actually be able to sleep most of the 5 ½ hours, and in that case it was totally worth it.)
Anyway, in today’s standard U.S. domestic configuration, the 12% of people in first class use about 25% of the passenger space, the 51 people in Economy Plus use another 30%, leaving the sardines—the other 157 people—with 45%. That gives us a Gini index of about 16.
Transatlantic flights, however, are increasingly taking this in-the-air distinction to new heights (ha ha). Take, for example, the below United configuration of the Boeing 777. It boasts seats that turn into beds on which one can lie fully horizontal. (Makes Economy Plus look like it’s for chumps!) United calls this new section of bed-seats “BusinessFirst.”
Unsurprisingly, though, these air-beds take up even more space than a nice comfy first class seat. So if we look again at how the space is distributed, we now have 21% of the people using about 40% of the plane, 27% using another 20%, and the final 52% using the last 40%. The Gini index has now increased, to 25.
Of course, I’m fully aware that a very small proportion of the Earth’s population can afford airline tickets in the first place, so we’re really seeing growing inequality between the 10%, the 1%, and the 0.1%. (I assume the 0.01% have jet shares?)
Nevertheless, it’s not often you see such a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources. I wonder how much of the shift is actually driven by increased inequality, as opposed to improved capacity for price discrimination?
And it’s also worth noting that the plane above, while unequal relative to the old-fashioned three-rows-of-first-class-and-the-rest-economy layout, is still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world.
(No vouching for the accuracy of the calculations above — very back-of-the-envelope, and I’m tired!)