Sunday musings: The 1% on airlines, airplane boarding, safety on ferries


Today, we examine the best-of-the-best airline seating and how it gets that way. We take a look at boarding aircraft and ask ourselves, “Why can’t they figure out a better way?” Finally, with the Korean ferry sinking in the news, we take a look at statistics on ferry safety; they’re safer than flying.

Game of Thrones: How airlines woo the one percent

As you know, I am not one to congratulate airlines on the widening gulf between tourist class and first class. I find the ever-growing differences between tourist class and first class disturbing. One group gets treated to every amenity conceivable and the other has been reduced to a simple seat. Period.

This article takes a close look at the best-of-the-best airplane seating and how it is designed, manufactured and installed. The details are extraordinary and the story fascinating.

In the early nineties, the best seats on airplanes were still just seats, even if they reclined almost all the way back. Then, in 1995, in first class on some long flights, British Airways introduced seats that turned into fully flat beds, and within a relatively short period airborne sleeping became a potent competitive weapon. The carriers that fly the wealthiest passengers on the longest routes have been especially aggressive about adding comforts, in both first and business (while also often shrinking the seats in economy and squeezing them closer together). A first-class passenger on the upper deck of some Lufthansa 747s gets to hop back and forth between a reclining seat and an adjacent full-length bed. On some of Singapore Airlines’ A380s, a couple travelling in first can combine two “suites” to create an enclosed private room with a double bed and sliding doors. On some flights on Emirates, first-class passengers who make a mess of the treats in their personal minibar can tidy up with a shower before they land.

If you checked into a luxury hotel and were taken to a room the size of a first-class airplane cabin, and told that you’d be sharing it with eleven people you didn’t know, all of whom would be sleeping within a few feet of your own skinny bed, you wouldn’t be thrilled, especially if you were paying twenty thousand dollars for the experience. Yet it’s not unheard of for people who travel long distances in really good seats to remember the flight as one of the best parts of their trip.

According to David Owen, the author, “Designing seats is like solving a three-dimensional puzzle, in which all the pieces have to fit together and even tiny spaces can be significant.”

The stakes are considerable for the airlines.

Premium cabins contribute disproportionately to an airline’s economic performance—both directly, through higher ticket prices, and indirectly, by solidifying relationships with big-budget customers who fly all the time. Business class is especially valuable; first class can be problematic, because first-class ticket holders require extra pampering and won’t tolerate overbooking.

The dumb way we board airplanes remains impervious to good data

Years ago, I worked with KLM in an effort to shorten the time between planes landing and taking off. The study was an attempt to add another wave of take-offs and landings at Schiphol Airport that had reached capacity in terms of runways and facilities. The solution was to add another tranche of airport activity to try and increase the utilization of the airport by 25 percent. (Schiphol was operating four waves of take-offs and landings. They wanted to increase that to five.) Boarding aircraft was one of the most important factors in reducing the time needed between flight operations.

We didn’t come up with a good solution. The airline industry still hasn’t. This article provides more grist for the airplane-boarding discussion.

While airlines policies vary — there is no standard accepted way of loading passengers — any “eye test” indicates that having travelers line up at the gate, only to wait again inside the plane, isn’t efficient. Data back this up: Boeing’s (BA) research showed that boarding a plane was 50 percent slower in 1998 than in 1970. “Boeing believes that these trends will continue,” the study noted, “unless the root causes are understood and new tools and processes are developed to reverse the trend.”

Despite South Korea’s sinking Sewol, ferries are still safer than air travel

This article is filled with statistics showing that ferry boat traffic is among the safest on the planet, even considering the recent Korean ferry sinking that has filled recent news reports.

… overall, ferry travel is less dangerous than flying. Air travel is often pronounced the “safest” mode of transport — and indeed, it’s safer than walking or taking a train — but that clearly isn’t counting travel by ferry. From 2002 to 2013, an average of 565 people around the world died each year in ferry accidents, compared with 715 on airplanes.