Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Let this model airplane illustrate inequality in the skies.
In the video above, watch the American artist Luca Iaconi-Stewart carefully assemble a tiny, gorgeous Airbus A380 out of manila envelopes. The 1:20 scale model required 1,000 hours, 100 envelopes, and 3,000 teeny, tiny hand cut pieces to build.
”No detail is too small,” is the tagline for the video, which is—it needs to be said—an advertisement for Singapore Airlines, produced by the Japanese agency Dentsu. The obvious message here is that the good people of Singapore Airlines will go well out of their way to make your flight a comfortable one, but my takeaway is something more like: Whoa, economy class is really getting the short end of the stick here.
You have to cough up extra money for a delicate manila seat that actually reclines and offers a dainty footrest—that’s “premium economy.” Then there’s business class, with a little more privacy and a little more reclining room. Then “first,” which gets you a more spacious pod, and critically, a bed. Finally, if a public sky-nap won’t cut it, separate yourself from the peons in a suite, which comes with a bed and a sliding door.
If it feels like the friendly skies are getting worse for economy class, you’re not wrong. A fascinating 2014 blog post from sociologist Elizabeth Berman found that fewer people are taking up more space on transatlantic flights than ever before, mostly thanks to those spacious airbeds. The richest 21 percent of passengers use about 40 percent of the commonly used Boeing 7777, she finds, while the next richest 27 percent use 20 percent, and the hoi polloi in economy class—the last 52 percent—take up just 40 percent.
Berman goes on to calculate the Gini index of transatlantic flights—one measure by which economists measure inequality. (The larger this number, the more unequal the system measured is.) The conventional two-class flight, she discovers, has a Gini index of 8. Three-class flights—which are becoming more and more common on U.S. domestic trips, and have an “economy plus” class—have a Gini index of 16. But the sad transatlantic flight has a Gini index of 25.
To be fair, this score is not that bad. Overall, America’s Gini index stands at about 48, while the world’s sits around 65. “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 percent, the 1 percent, and the 0.1 percent,” Berman writes.
Interestingly enough, the most recent airline recommendations by the sensibly named AirlineRatings.com found that Gulf and Asian carriers—like Singapore Airlines—are the most comfortable for economy flyers. A few intercontinental Singapore flights even offer a positively luxurious 34 inches between each seat, compared to the standard 31 to 32 inches offered on most other plane trips.(Alaska Airlines just announced it will introduce a 35-inch seat pitch in coach—for extra money.)
So you’re not crazy—flying is getting more miserable for economy class riders. At least it all looks very pretty in miniature.
H/t Strait Times