Musing on air travel and inequality in the sky: are the odds high?

By Kenneth Amaeshi

Imagine sitting for 13 hours on a flight from London to Shanghai in economy class. The space is limited. Leg room is constrained. Seat pitch is 30-31 inches compared to a 6ft fully flat bed and 6ft 6” fully flat bed in the business class and first class sections, respectively. The section is crowded; and to get to your seat, you would have been inadvertently humiliated by a system that is well versed in glamorising inequality. The logic of the airline business is simple and straightforward: the more you can afford to pay, the more preferential treatment you receive. This applies to first-class and business class passengers, respectively, in particular. Their progress through the airport is significantly fast-tracked. Whilst waiting for flights, they are lavishly pampered. And on board, they enjoy good luxury. Arguably, the profits of the airlines are tied to these two classes. The cost of a first class ticket can almost afford two business class tickets, and up to twenty economy class tickets. In essence these two classes of tickets substantially subsidise the economy tickets.

Air travel, in general, comes across as one where inequality is systematically embedded in the public and private infrastructures that support it – e.g. fast-track lanes, executive lounges, transfer services, and on board experiences. This inequality has to a large extent remained underexplored in the CSR and sustainable business discourse of airlines. The main sustainability issues raised often about the industry are usually in the areas of environmental and noise pollution However, beyond these, there are often taken for granted practices in the industry which promote and reinforce social inequality, conspicuous consumption, power relations, and class struggles. A quick search through the British Airways 2012 Corporate Responsibility Report, for instance, reveals a complete absence of any mention of the “economy class”, which is rather curious.

It is not in contention that the economics of air travel is fundamentally built on a premise that marginalises human dignity and prioritises profits at the expense of class differences.  These differences are then packaged and sold as a luxury to suit the tastes of a few who sometimes seem to be entertained by the proletariats as they march to their lowly and often crowded places at the back of the plane, with inadequate facilities. The proletariats seem to be conveniently objectified in the Sartrean sense in order to make the bourgeoisies feel special. That’s what brands do; and that’s why they are voraciously and conspicuously consumed as predicted by Thorstien Veblen.  The irony, however, is that most of these exotic tickets are rarely paid for by these individuals. Most are paid for by their businesses. The businesses in turn charge such expenses against business costs, which are not taxed. Invariably, the public indirectly subsidises these tickets.

The dramaturgy is even more entertaining and pronounced once the different “classes” have settled in their places; the curtains are literarily drawn between the classes as if they represent a wedge to ensure that the classes remain fixed in their different positions without any form of interactions for fear of class contamination and corruption. This scene is elegantly choreographed and enacted by the cabin crew who are paid to manufacture and offer courteousness despite the gross scenes of inequality they encounter in the course of doing their jobs, which is understandably not of their making.

Given this familiar scenario, it is very tempting to wish-away the inequality embedded in air travel as a matter of consumer choices, demands, affordability, and market forces.  However, it is undeniably obvious that the current structure of air travel is a function of profit and not necessarily of human dignity, which raises a fundamental question with regards to corporate responsibility in the air travel industry. Is there a way to reconstruct and redesign the system to meet both profit and human dignity goals? Can air travel be more dignifying for many than for a few? These are some of the pressing questions the industry will need to answer – in addition to the environmental and noise issues – in the era of sustainability and responsible business practices. These questions will be more pressing as the impacts of economic globalization increase.

As much as the aviation industry strives to be green, it is high time it also considered the inequality embedded in its infrastructure. The main purpose of this piece is not necessarily to criticise the airlines, but to point to a space for entrepreneurs and economic change agents to re-imagine air travel from a sustainability and equality lens. Low cost airlines have managed to eliminate class struggles through the homogenisation of services and elimination of redundant services; however, the overall sector can do better with prioritising human dignity, and this should not miss the gaze of anyone interested in sustainable aviation. But the key puzzle remains: can the quest for profit and human dignity co-exist peacefully in the air travel industry?

Dr Kenneth Amaeshi is the director of the Sustainable Business Initiative, and an associate professor (Reader) in strategy and international business, at the University of Edinburgh and a visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management and Lagos Business School.

2 thoughts on “Musing on air travel and inequality in the sky: are the odds high?

  1. Ify Nwobodo

    Interesting article! Though I think you may simply have forgotten that the airline business is a profit making one and as such would lay emphasis on the areas that increases profitability.

    I have to say that you’ve stated alots of facts in this article, I can say this because in the past I often flew economy class but now I often fly business and or first class.

    The inequality as you call it, which of course is what it presents itself as, may I ask, does it come down to getting the service you paid for?

    Its like buying an apartment in Peckham, South. East London and then expecting to have the same view as someone who bought his or her own apartment in Canary Wharf, quite impossible!

    Do you also realise that some people who fly economy can afford to fly business or first class? Some are not willing to pay such an amount to fly, just like some people have the money to buy homes in a creme de la creme areas but still live in the ghetto! Yes its arguable that the percentage might be so small you could almost say insignificant! But has it ever crossed your mind that not everybody would want to spend their money buying business and or first class tickets even if they could afford it.

    Now for example, I’m a lady and I love handbags and shoes, hair and clothes. But I must say the former is more of a priority for me. But I’ve found that for other ladies I’ve come across, spending huge amount of money on human hair is more important.

    My point is simple. Sometimes its a matter of choice and in cases where it isn’t, I would simply say you are getting what you paid for!

  2. Kenneth Amaeshi

    Dear Ify,

    You have raised very interesting points. Here is a similar article just published by The Economist titled: “Piketty Airways” – 5 months afterwards…

    It may answer some of the points you raised. I found the comments to the article also interesting.

    Best wishes,

    Kenneth Amaeshi

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