Morale, Knees and Common Elements

Obese Airline PassengerI was on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to San Diego and somewhere over the Rockies I just couldn’t sit any longer, so I took a stroll to the galley at the back of the plane.  Half-squats, twisting and tugging this way and that restored circulation, and I felt considerably better.

This happened about a year after the first United Airlines bankruptcy filing, so after my physical contortions I struck up a conversation with a flight attendant.  I asked about morale, now that all the employees had taken a 20% blow to their wallets.  She rolled her eyes and said, “Not good.”

She continued, telling me that the CEO had just taken a multimillion dollar bonus, while none of the employees had received back pay, nor restoration of pay rates, both of which had been promised.  That pretty much killed any “we’re in this together” spirit.  Employee give-a-damn level was down here, she reported, with an ankle level gesture and a glare that could laser cut her CEO’s investment statements.

I travel quiet a bit, delivering workshops and keynote presentations all over the United States and Canada, so I have the opportunity for lots of, shall we say, airplane adventures.  Some are influenced by airline employees whom I encounter directly, like that flight attendant.  Some of those adventures are influenced by airline employees whom I will never meet but whose work products affect me on every flight.

For example, when I cannot get a preferred seat as a perk of my frequent flyer status, I sit in aluminum tube steerage.  I’m not a big guy, but I do want half of the elbow rests and 100% of my seat width.  Both of those are compromised when a 370 pound seatmate shows up.  Fully 15% of my seat back is occupied by his shoulder and the armrest has disappeared into a sea of flesh.  I have lots of stories about trips with interesting seatmates.  They encompass all the senses and are not uniformly pleasant.

It is well known that we Americans are an overweight bunch.  So, while the FAA standard human being weighs 170 pounds, that number is exactly that – a standard – meaning some people weigh lots more than that.  The seat designers know that, but they engineer the seating in their planes as though we all weigh 170 pounds, which gets me buried by my over-sized seatmate.  The designers also engineer leg room as though we were all no taller than 5’8″, which makes my greatest fear of flying that the guy sitting in front of me will recline his seat back and smash my knees.  Memo to commercial airliner design people: Some of us are taller than your standard and some of us are wider and that impacts lots of people.

Here is the connection between flight attendants’ low morale, portly seatmates and the knee crushing machine: These conditions continue because we tolerate them.  The flight attendants continue to work for less and the flying public continues to reward the airlines for stuffing us into insufficient space.  That is to say, corporate management does what it does because it can.

It is exactly the same with our government and our politics.  The NSA is snooping on you and will continue to do so because you allow it.  Congress acts as though confrontation and stagnation were virtues.  They do that because we tolerate their behavior by electing those who create the confrontation and stagnation.  The NRA strong-arms congress and everything is voted as they like and not as you like.  That happens because we elected the fools who would do that and we will continue to get exactly the same kinds of results as long as we tolerate it.

“The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity,” advises Harlan Ellison.  We have to be smarter than the people who do the things we don’t want them to do and strong enough to stop tolerating their behavior.

Copyright 2024 by Jack Altschuler
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2 Responses to Morale, Knees and Common Elements
  1. Steven Streeter Reply


    I’m back to work as an electrical engineer (contractor) with less pay, but there is a group of people who aren’t in it with me. If you ask me to sacrifice and I know that those at the top aren’t setting financial goals based on added revenue from worker cuts… and CEO pay didn’t go up another 29% leading up to 2013, Then I wouldn’t feel justified in complaining. I would go to the town square with my Sterling Sillverware to throw it onto the pile of precious collected for the general welfare of the United States of America.

    When they say that the communists didn’t understand peoples pride in ownership, that communal living is against our hard wired basic instincts, it has also been shown that among Capitalists, those at the top who aren’t suffering will also not get the love of the people.

  2. Dan Wallace Reply

    Can’t resist, Jack. There’s something else going on in both situations, which is that structural elements exist which make it extremely hard for ‘right things’ to happen. With the legacy airlines, the problem is that they have a structure and business model which reflects what made sense 30-50 years ago (hub and spoke infrastructure, fly just about anywhere, provide different service levels on every flight, even though they only make money on the first 15 or so rows of the plane). Actually, the structure itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that it’s awfully hard to get out of the structure – and yes, it’s a shame that the airlines that have gone through bankruptcy didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to do that.

    One of the barriers to change is what my friend Adam Hartung calls “Lock In,” the mindset that makes solutions outside the status quo hard to imagine. We are hard-wired for this – it happens to everyone. That said, one could imagine an airline industry structured very differently in ways that are not worth going into here, but that you and I will perhaps discuss over lunch sometime soon. Leases, contracts, infrastructure, and yes, unions all make that transition very hard.

    In the case of government, there is plenty of questionable judgment to go around. But there is also a structural problem that underlies many of our most vexing problems, which is that our beloved founding fathers designed our government – especially the Congress – to apportion a growing supply of goodies more or less fairly over time. They didn’t design it to take goodies away, and it doesn’t have the capability to do that. It just ain’t got those genes. The ugly reality is that we’ve been economically uncompetitive on the world stage for about 35 years (a matter of data, not speculation – just look at the balance of trade). We are Constitutionally (see what I did there?) challenged when it comes to facing up to that, and it’s not just the moneyed interests.

    A while back, I heard a “socialist economist” (oxymoron in my view) on NPR (which I actually find balanced) blaming falling wage rates for the reduction in union influence in America. This knucklehead apparently has never met a properly configured cart and horse. The reason for the decline in union influence is that globalization, which exposed American workers to competition from often very capable, and much less expensive, workers in other countries. You can’t legislate that trend away. Not trying to union-bash here. Just saying that we are living through a time when major trends are not in our favor, and we have profound structural limitations to our ability to confront and deal with them.

    Like you, I would love to see politicians just tell the truth about where we are and what we’re going to have to do in order to get to a better place. Unfortunately, politicians who say that will have fairly short-lived tenure in office because the American people really don’t want to hear that kind of news. (One of the tragedies of our recent history, in my opinion, is that Barack Obama was the rare politician who could have gotten away with it, both because of his rhetorical charisma and because no one blamed him for the mess he inherited. Unfortunately, he chose not to go there – a great waste. Certainly not the only reason for his struggles – see “Mitch McConnell” and “House Republicans” – but he could have played his hand very differently than he did.)

    Anyway, enough ranting. Thanks for providing the space. I will leave you with this thought: (I believe) that most people are good and want to do the right thing most of the time. So when you see bad behavior occurring on a systematic basis, it’s a good idea to look for a systematic or structural cause – to see what underlying forces may be driving otherwise good people to do not so good things.