November 27, 2014

· Politics · Sociology

The other day at OrgTheory, Beth Berman had a very nice discussion on “inequality in the skies” about how much of space on planes is given over to different classes of passenger. Using seating charts, she calculated some rough Gini coefficients of inequality on board. For example, on a transatlantic flight in a three-class configuration with fancy lie-flat beds up front,

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.

She also noted in passing that, as unequal as that is, it’s “still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world.” I found myself wondering what a plane with seating laid out on the basis of the U.S. income distribution would look like. So, following Beth’s lead, I decided to get into the aviation business and launch Air Gini, America’s most American airline. To begin, for context, here’s a regular old Airbus A330-300 in a three class configuration often seen on international flights. It has First, Business, and Economy Class cabins.

A Regular Airline's Three Class System.

A Regular Airline's Three Class System.

A plane with this layout carries two hundred and twenty seven passengers. There are one hundred and seventy seven lucky duckies in Economy, forty two in Business, and eight in First Class. As Beth did, we can see that the seventy eight percent of passengers in Economy get about fifty eight percent of the seating space on the plane. Business Class passengers get just over thirty one percent of the room, and First Class passengers get about eleven percent of the space. Perhaps you’ve flown Economy on a flight like this. As you boarded, maybe you walked past the Business Class seats, and you might also have caught a quick glimpse of the First Class seats way up front. So you have a sense of how much space different passengers have.

How does Air Gini improve on this arrangement? Those eight First Class passengers are about three and a half percent of the plane’s population; the Business Class group is eighteen and a half percent; and the remaining seventy eight percent of this little society are in Economy. So, what if the space on the plane was allocated in proportion to the share of total income earned by each class? With a bit of help from the Census Bureau, Emmanuel Saez, and the Federal Aviation Authority, Air Gini is proud to bring you the future of air travel:

Air Gini: We Like to Fly the Way You Like to Live.

Air Gini: We Like to Fly the Way You Like to Live.

In Air Gini’s three-class layout, some things look familiar and some things are a bit different. Economy Class makes up just under eighty percent of the passengers. Passengers seated there correspond to everyone who makes less than about $97,000 a year. Their share of total income in the US is just below fifty percent, and thus so is their share of the seating space. On the regular airline it was about fifty eight percent, so for these working stiffs the new arrangement is even more cramped than on our ordinary international flight. Economy Class passengers on Air Gini should expect less overhead bin space and more passive-aggressive interactions with the guy in front of them who insists on reclining his seat.

Up with the managers, meanwhile, things have become more compressed, too. Business Class travelers are just over eighteen percent of passengers, but now they get only fifteen percent of the space. That’s obviously still much better than Economy class, but it’s down from the thirty percent or so they had in the original plane. These fliers are almost all in the top quintile: in real-life terms, they correspond to everyone from just below the 80th percentile of the US income distribution up to just above the 96th percentile. Roughly, that’s households making between $97,000 and $280,000 a year. Yet many of them feel a little angry about how little space they have. Strange though it seems, some of those in the seats closest to the front of their section even feel somewhat poor—at least by comparison to those a bit further up the plane. Air Gini understands their situation and compensates them with a complimentary in-flight snack.

What has happened to make Business Class more cramped? The answer is to be found in Ruling Class. Sorry, I mean, First Class. On Air Gini, those eight most-valued passengers—three and a half percent of those on board—get thirty five percent of the available seating space. That’s a lot of legroom. So much, in fact, that as First Class passengers have spread out to take up the first third of the plane, Air Gini has been forced to replace the luxurious Business Class seats in the real-life configuration with still-comfortable but noticeably smaller chairs.

Not to worry, though. Air Gini’s eight First Class passengers can really enjoy themselves, which is the important thing. And yet, even here at the head of the aircraft, Air Gini’s layout hints that inequality may extend all the way up to the flight deck. Two of the first class seats are close to the front of Business Class, and behind a bulkhead. Awkward. Those passengers make about $300,000 a year. The passenger in the very front row, meanwhile, makes a hell of a lot more than that and has even more room to relax in than his peers. All things considered, you have to wonder exactly who is flying this plane—and more importantly, perhaps, who owns it.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.

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