Saturday, 15 April 2017

Banged Up

Since Plato's ship, means of transport have provided a wealth of metaphors for society in general and politics in particular. They create a temporary community of interest (even the lone motorist is sharing a road), engaged in a progressive project (getting from A to B, even if only to return once more to A) and obliged to submit to the authority of a leader (the captain, the pilot, the great helmsman). If the ship was the pre-eminent metaphor from the ancient world to early modern times (the ship of state, the ship of fools), the steam locomotive became the emblematic form of transport during the industrial revolution. This was because it represented bourgeois experience and therefore the public sphere of the limited franchise. Few workers could afford (or had need of) train travel until the twentieth century, and then usually only for holidays. Beyond shanks's pony, the bus (or tram, or trolley-car) has always been the proletarian means of transport, even after the decanting of old urban areas to the housing schemes and new towns. In the realm of metaphor, trains are still about class, bureaucracy and frustrated ambition (late again!), which means they have changed little in over a century.

The one means of transport that has been historically volatile both in reality and metaphor is air travel. While trains have remained essentially middle-class, because of the dominance of commuters, and buses have remained largely working class, air travel has evolved from the exclusivity of its prewar silver service days to the low-cost, no-frills experience of the modern era. The result is a more extreme social stratification than even British trains, with the well-appointed limousine of first class a short walk, via the wannabes of business class, to the cattle truck of standard class. This makes the aeroplane a perfect microcosm of society and a theatrical focal point. It also makes it ideal as a site of jeopardy, hence the ever-popular mid-air disaster trope (snakes!, on a plane?) and our morbid fascination with actual crashes. Air travel remains statistically safe, not to mention fast and efficient, but we assume the experience must be stressful and dangerous, hence a passenger forcibly ejected by United Airlines can get away with claiming that the experience was "worse than the fall of Saigon".

Starting in the 1970s, planes also became one of the frontlines for deregulation, particularly in the UK and US, heralding the way for the emergence of new operators like Virgin Atlantic in the 1980s and then a variety of low-cost operators in the 1990s, particularly in Europe. A consequence of this was that air travel was increasingly presented as a laboratory experiment for economic theory, not only in respect of the wonders of competition but also in terms of consumer behaviour and rational choice. The emergence of no-frills flying was attributed to the revealed preference for low-price over comfort, over-booking was rationalised by the calculation that not every buyer will utilise their purchase, and compensation for flight-bumping assumed that a market will clear at the right price. The results of deregulation have been mixed. In reality, flying remains highly regulated, for obvious safety reasons, while the constraints on airports and routes mean that cartels and monopolies are the norm. Service quality, at least for standard class passengers, has steadily declined, while long-haul prices remain stubbornly high. Low-cost travel has been a plus in Europe, however it would be a wrong to claim that this arose from deregulation. The single market and the fall of the Berlin Wall were clearly decisive.

The decanting of Doctor Dao by United Airlines revealed two truths about capitalism. According to economic theory, having failed to get any further volunteers to disembark at the initial offer price of $800, UA should simply have steadily increased the price until someone stuck their hand up (and if more than one person did, drawn straws to pick the winner). In the event, the airline simply decided to enforce the standard terms of their contract (you have no right to fly) and their property rights (a refusal to leave on demand is trespass). UA's claim that Dao was "belligerent" suggests they were framing the problem in these terms from the off. Bumping is usually done on the terminal side of the gate, once the number of checked-in passengers is known, which makes it psychologically easier to handle for all parties. It appears UA caused the problem by deciding to board four of their own staff at the last moment (so the flight wasn't technically "oversold"), thereby claiming superior privilege. This would be like a hotelier kicking you out of your room because his mother-in-law had turned up unexpectedly.

This highlights the first truth about capitalism. Corporations don't instinctively think in terms of markets and trade-offs, they first and foremost think in terms of property rights. Much of the outrage in this case arises from a similar instinct in the public mind. We assume that a purchased ticket is a form of property, not simply because we don't read the contractual small print, but because we treat it as a token of value, like cash, rather than a permission that can be rescinded. That UA should have then misdirected Doctor Dao's luggage - his own property - is an irony apparently lost on the company's critics. The Dao case, even if it is settled out of court, is likely to be extensively written about as a contest of rights, but it is unlikely to lead to any change in industry practice or the law. This is because all parties see property rights as sacrosanct and they accept that "reasonable and proportionate" force (or resistance) is legitimate in defence of those rights. The questions arising concern whether the airline should have incurred a greater cost up-front in terms of passenger compensation and whether the force used was justified.

The second truth is that capitalism depends on the threat (and often routine execution) of violence, but this vignette of brutality is unlikely to prompt calls for anything other than a better capitalism, which is another way of saying a capitalism that is less overtly violent, not one that eschews violence altogether. Predictably, other airlines have trolled UA by implying that they would have acted more humanely, which is an admission that they consider humanity a service differentiator rather than a non-negotiable expectation. The implicit message to consumers is that they must choose wisely or face the possibility of inhumane treatment. The question of prejudice and stereotyping has been raised, i.e. was Dao picked on because he was Asian, though like the absurd parallel drawn with Rosa Parks, this appears to be nothing more than a deflection from the central issue of violence. The Doctor was in the wrong place at the wrong time, in UA's view, and that alone appears to have been considered justification for his rough handling.

The desire to avoid confronting the importance of violence to capitalism's smooth (or not so smooth) operation means that victim-blaming of the individual easily expands into victim-blaming of all travellers. The trope of air travel as a self-imposed penance for cheap flights was quickly normalised with the emergence of no-frills flying in the 1990s, to the point that Ryanair adopted it as an anti-USP. That the company has since made a volte-face towards customer service is less a Pauline conversion than an admission that maintaining a high media profile necessitates novelty: learning the value of niceness is just another story. I fully expect Michael O'Leary to come up with another PR-friendly wheeze in due course. Though he has long been happy to play the bastard, and now the prodigal, O'Leary would never make the mistake of playing the thug, as United Airlines has. All publicity really isn't good publicity if it reveals what we don't want to acknowledge. We're happy to be accused of being cheapskates by a cheapskate, but we're not happy to be cast as the meat in a corporate sandwich.

What Ryanair's notorious extra charges highlighted was the passenger's dilemma: that a higher price is usually a poor deal because the gain is either small or unreliable. The best in-flight food is inferior to a mediocre restaurant, the in-flight entertainment is worse than your own smartphone, and even a first class bed is no better than an old railway couchette. In other words, capitalism is unable to deliver a better service in air travel so it is obliged to make a virtue of poor quality through an emphasis on low-cost. This development has happened in parallel with the imposition of tighter security post-9/11, with the result that air travel is increasingly viewed as an experience that must be endured rather than enjoyed. Given the many parallels with prison - the security check, the confined space, the lack of exercise - it is no wonder that it is becoming increasingly coercive in style, and no wonder that dissent is met by force. I predict a riot.


  1. "Service quality, at least for standard class passengers, has steadily declined ..."

    I saw another quote somewhere that the squeeze on cost in all spheres of life is leading to a fall in service standards generally (think hours hanging on the phone, bank branches closing, etc.). While the poor have generally always had to put up with this, it's now impinging on the middle classes, and therefore gaining more salience. So, as with wages, middle is becoming more squeezed, and the difference between the 1% and the rest becoming more obvious.

    I'd resist trying to hark back to any idea of former halcyon days of consumer service, but it rings true.

    1. A paradox of technology is that as we take certain improvements in service quality for granted, we become more intolerant of what we perceive as poor service elsewhere. For example, the combination of apps and bus stop LED indicators mean that we often know when the next bus is coming (at least in metropolitan areas), yet many people now start tutting when it sticks on "due" for more than 30 seconds.

      Despite the talk some years ago about digital disenfranchisement (less of an issue now because of the near-ubiquity of smartphones), it strikes me that it is the middle classes who have struggled most with the move of service provision online (e.g. for banking), partly because they can't get someone else to sort out their problems and partly because they miss the exercise of power involved in such transactions.

  2. Herbie Kills Children18 April 2017 at 18:46

    Buses and trains are fairly localised, planes on the other hand do demand at least some lip service is paid to the global working class, the global middle class and the global elite. Though I guess we could sum it up by saying for most of the working class planes are those things that look like giant birds or your main means of transnational travel is via overcrowded boats where your chances of survival are not great.

    Capitalism is of course a system of rationing goods based on ability to pay, among other things.

    We need a new motto on the left along the lines of,

    "If you accept the system don't fucking come to me moaning about it"

    1. Market failure. Proponents of free trade capitalism presume that there will be alternatives available that allow the punter to select their maximum utility. Mainly that's a myth.