Memo to: The non-rich
From: A concerned hedge-fund manager
Re: Your air travel:
Being a private person, I can’t imagine flying any way but privately.
It’s true that I airdrop into Bloomberg every now and again to offer the public a rare glimpse of the mind of a seriously rich (more than $100 million net worth) and consistently successful hedge fund manager (more than $1 billion under management.) But mainly I try to keep to myself, and to that end have long avoided boarding an airplane owned by someone else.
So you can think of me as an outside consultant. With no direct experience of your predicament—the growing misery of life inside a commercial airplane—I am unusually positioned to understand it.
I can give you the view from 30,000 feet; I can tell you how your travelling future looks to me from the window of my Gulfstream G5. And from where I sit I can see three big trends. They are:
Trend one: The service on your aeroplanes, bad as it may be, is going to get much worse.
AMR Corp.’s American Airlines is now charging $15 a bag, US Airways Group Inc. is taking away the in-flight movies and demanding two bucks for a can of Coke, and various airline chief executive officers (CEOs) are contemplating weighing the passengers and charging them by the pound. And you just know that once one of these airlines starts weighing people, all of them will, or risk being crushed by fat people looking for a deal.
“They have already begun to think exotically,” a spokesman for the airline industry told Bloomberg News, apropos of these airline CEOs. “Nothing is not under the microscope.”
There’s a reason for this, and it’s not just the price of oil. It’s the price of you.
You still expect to be treated like a rich person when you have demonstrated, by flying commercial, that you are a poor person. (Poor being defined as an inability to afford at least a share of a NetJet.) And nothing demoralizes a service-industry professional so quickly as the sight of a high concentration ofpoor people.
Take flight attendants, for example. Once upon a time, these straight ladies and gay men sought to please fliers; now they treat fliers like criminals. Ask a stew and she’ll probably blame it all on terrorism. She’ll go on about how after 9/11 she stopped being a camp counsellor and became a cop. But that’s just an excuse.
What’s really happened is that she’s come to realize that however happy she makes her passengers they can give her back only so much in return— so why bother?
If even one of the passengers was a seriously richperson—Jack Welch, for instance, or even little Dickie Grasso—these same stews might think twice before abandoning service for law enforcement. They might actually want to be charming. Instead, they gaze upon a first class filled with people who paid with frequent-flyer miles and a coach class of seriously desperate people and instinctively reach for their whips and chains. And really, can you blame them?
Trend two: Your time will be treated as ever-less valuable. You think it’s an outrage that planes are now flying more slowly to save fuel? Wait until you find yourself en route from New York to Los Angeles, and stop unexpectedly in Denver until the headwind slows.
You will wonder: How long can it take to fly across America? And you will discover: As long as they want it to take! They know you are poor; they know from their experience that, given the choice, you will always save money rather than time. And so they don’t fear that if they slow down you will get off.
If your time was that valuable, they will think to themselves, you wouldn’t be flying on their planes in the first place.
And they are right!
Trend three: Your planes will be ever-more likely to have an accident. After all, these people who run the airlines have every expense under their microscope; how long can it be before they’re examining the value of your coach-class head?
Of course, no major airline would ever consciously set out to kill you. But their planes will age, their spending on safety will decline, and they will increase, at your peril, the likelihood of catastrophe. The question is when they try to sell you your own parachute, will there be some free smoked almonds inside?
Studying these trends a pessimist would probably conclude that poor people must one day simply cease to travel. Come vacation time the rich will still pop over to Paris and eat at the finest restaurants; the poor will find something else to entertain themselves. Perhaps a camp site near their quaint little home, where they can forage in the wild for free snacks.
But I am not a pessimist. Like Barack Obama, I believe in giving people hope. And the hope, for you, is to lure actual rich people back on to commercial airlines. For example, in exchange for paying, say, two-thirds of what it would cost to fly private, and thus covering the bulk of the cost of any flight, rich people might be given special cabins in the front of each commercial plane, decked out very much like their G5s once were.
Obviously, no rich person would agree to fly commercial—essentially paying for a great deal more than his share of the cost—unless he was granted the other comforts of flying private. And, of course, he and he alone would need to decide when the plane took off and where it landed—but as rich people usually go to really desirable places, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Each night poor people in say, Detroit, who were hoping to travel to, say, London, could go online and see where the local rich people planned to go. They’d surf around and find...Bill Ford is planning to fly to London tomorrow morning! And as many of the local poor who might fit could click on a link and acquire a cheap seat in the back of Bill Ford’s flight.
There are some tiny problems with this plan, of course. There won’t be many direct flights to Topeka, Kansas, or a lot of other places that the rich seldom go. Indeed, poor people trying to get anywhere near Topeka will probably experience frustration, as their aeroplanes fly back and forth over it, without so much as a pause. But these problems are small compared with the benefits. Once again poor people will be free to fly, at speed and even in comfort, just like us regular folk.
Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org