This is from 2012 | 6 minute read

Reflections On The Lack Of Humanism In Air Travel

I fly a lot, and each time, I can't help but reflect on the experience of flying as a dual representation: a powerful indication of the technological abilities of man, and a dramatic illustration of a lack of humanism. In many ways, flying is the ideal research subject for a systems-oriented designer; it's got it all:

  • Advanced technology, in the form of planes, people movers, back-scatter x-ray machines, giant advertising displays, QR codes everywhere, and even police on Segways
  • Legacy technology that's firmly embedded, including green-screens from the 80s, client-server booking systems, and dot-matrix printers
  • Coordination and logistics, which mostly involves moving people and things to the right place at the right time (people to planes, planes to gates, baggage to planes, food to planes, waste from planes, wheelchairs to gates, information to gates, and so on)
  • Information, both static (this is always gate 15) and dynamic (your departure has just moved from gate 15 to gate 20)
  • Overlapping needs and incentive structures, like the need to move planes as quickly as possible, the need to provide friendly service, the need for constant cleanliness, the need for safety, the need for perception of safety, and so on.
  • Third-party vendors, operating in a sort of surreal orbit around the traveling public
  • Policies, set by various levels of authority, many of which are absurd and arbitrary
  • Lots and lots of people.

These make up the constituents of flying, and each of these constituents have touchpoints with the traveling public. An optimistic way of looking at a touchpoint is that it is the place where a person interacts with a system or service, creating an opportunity for delight or an exchange of values. It's a chance for dialogue, both literal and figurative, and it should act as a conduit for human to human interactions. But a more realistic view of the touchpoints involved in air travel is that these are places where the seams of broken systems are exposed, where priorities become obvious. Every touchpoint with, say, the TSA is a chance for a person to glimpse the policy decisions that have been made at the expense of delight, value exchange, or human to human interactions. The TSA is, in the United States, considered to be the most obvious part of the problem. I'm reluctant to provide them any compliments, but I will offer that they are only one part of the much larger, systematic problem facing the air-travel industry: a lack of humanism. Because at each touchpoint, there's evidence of a regression to assembly-line tactics, driven by a desire for increase speed, increased efficiency, and a want to squeeze pennies out of an already tired revenue stream. This, in total, is why flying has become such a miserable experience.

Advanced technologies—from the screens in the back of the seats, to the use of touch-screen terminals for check in—are used to offer new revenue streams for the airline or to streamline efficiency for the employees of the various organizations. The use of digital signs (which, as I wrote this in the Austin airport, were not working—because, as the gate agent told me, the "system was down") act as an elimination of a human to human interaction. The flight crew is incented to herd the travelers to their seats as quickly as possible, in order to claim an on-time departure (which is defined, computationally, by the moment the captain turns off the brake, once the main cabin door is closed). Even the third-party vendors in the airport are adopting systems set on reducing human interactions, such as touch-screen ordering kiosks for fast-food. (One employee at the airport Schlotzsky's told me that she likes this automated ordering system better than the old way, because she doesn't have to interact with customers as much.)

As an aside, I found it rather bizarre that Schlotzskys manufactures their own potato chips, which is likely yet another way to "creatively maximize revenue".

I don't believe that technology is neutral. Technology is a piece of a larger design rhetoric, one that forwards ideals and values. "User-centered design" has emerged as a way to champion for the users of systems, giving them a voice in the face of unusable, over-engineered tools. But we don't seem to have a way to champion for users in the face of a systemic drive towards efficiency and optimization.

It is argued that more efficient systems drive down costs; I don't disagree. The cost of a plane ticket is low, relative to pretty much any metric you care to select, and that low cost is a direct result of the number of bodies that can be jammed on the plane, the price that can be negotiated for fuel, and the use of automated systems and reduced staffing across the system. The argument is commonly extended: this streamlining is, in fact, good business practice. But at each point in the system described above—at each of the touchpoints—the push for more efficient systems, which has resulted in lower costs, has led to commoditization. Interactions within the system are characterized by the same tenor as those with our electric provider or gas company. These are anonymous interactions, interactions that occur mindlessly and with no real feeling. These are interactions where business choices are made without regard for the person that is going to be using the business, and purchasing prices are made exclusively based on price.

Humanism evolved as a celebration of people, rather than a divinity. Broadly, I view humanism as a celebration of people, rather than anything else: including technology. The pursuit of low costs, attributed to technological advancements and delivered in the context of business, seems to cause a lack of humanism.

I'm worried that what we see playing out in air travel is playing out in other industries, too, and will soon color the way we experience grocery shopping, working, playing, and learning. Technological infrastructure makes life easier for some people. I'm increasingly convinced that it isn't for the users of the systems we are building. We're making it easier for us—the designers of the systems—to maintain our systems, upgrade them, service them, repair them, and make money off of them. We're increasing our efficiency and effectiveness, and driving scale more cheaply. And in the process, we're decreasing the quality of life for everyone else.

When American Airlines arrives at the gate, they offer the pithy "We know you have a choice in air travel, and we thank you for choosing American Airlines." They might instead try, "We know that, if you don't have frequent flyer status, you pick the cheapest airline possible. That's because we've participated in a race to the bottom, and so have you. The reason you just spent a few hours in the most uncomfortable seats on the planet is because we were then able to add another row of seats, dropping the cost of your ticket by fifty cents. Have a pleasant day."

Originally posted on Fri, 11 May 2012

Want to read some more? Try A Unique Educational Model: Fly The Professors In.