The Visualization of the Quantification of the Commodification of Air Travel

Or: Why Flying Makes You Feel Like a Rat in a Lab Cage
Illustration by McKibillo

Here’s something to think about the next time you get to the airport an hour early, slog through security, browse the newsstand while awaiting your boarding call, wrestle into your legroom-deficient middle seat, fiddle with the overhead vents as your departure time comes and goes, ignore the safety video, clutch the armrests during takeoff, decline the $5 headphones, marvel at what these people call a meal, and generally mutter to yourself about just how fundamentally unpleasant the experience of commercial air travel can be at the dawn of a new century in aviation.

You are being watched.

Make that “studied”: Your every whim and wish, your every decision and opinion and complaint probed and parsed by the airline executives whose very future depends upon their ability to understand you–you, the paying customer and captive creature. Your shape, your weight, your feelings about a packet of pretzels insufficient to feed a gerbil: These are their science and their business. So too the gases you emit, the diseases you carry. The airlines crave intel on your food allergies, your tolerance for G-forces and your propensity for air rage. They must know how your body holds up in low humidity and low air pressure and heightened radiation. Their thirst for knowledge is almost unquenchable, their research effort so vast as to approach futility. “Outside of lab rats,” says industry consultant Michael Planey, “airline passengers are the most analyzed subjects in the world.”

The following is a distillation of what the airlines know about us, their lab rats. It’s a breathtaking, though at times vertigo-inducing, view.

Enjoy the flight.


By no measure are airport terminals at the start of the 21st century low-stress or even very efficient public places. Clogged ground traffic getting in and out, parking hassles, long wait lines, heightened security, nervous passengers scanning other nervous passengers: This isn’t fun anymore! Logical antidote: shopping and eating. “It used to be that airports’ stores and restaurants were all about need,” says Martha Capps, a concessions consultant for North America’s top-ranked shopping airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul. “You could get
a hot dog and a piece of pizza and a Coke, maybe a newspaper and an aspirin. Now, though, it’s all about want and desire and entertainment.” That may explain why the average American flier tips the scale at 20.6 pounds over the FAA’s “average” weight estimate.

Less Convenient, More Punctual

With fewer flights in the air since 9/11, you’re now more likely to arrive on time. On-time averages have jumped from about 75 percent over the three years preceding September 2001 to 83.4 percent in the year ending July 2003.

Coffee, Tea or Duty-Free?

When security tightened up post-9/11, traffic jumped at airport shops even though many became passenger-only zones. Suspected reason: Fliers arrive
earlier to deal with security, then have time to kill before their flights. “Mallports” typically generate two to three times more sales per square foot than regional malls.

Doing the Eastbound Crush

Demand for cross-country westbound flights is steady throughout the day: The
3-hour time gain means business travelers can leave early and arrive in time for lunch, or leave later for an afternoon meeting. But almost all eastbound travelers want to depart mid-morning: Any later and they’ll miss dinner. That eastbound crush drives everything from schedules to airport design. Says Seattle-Tacoma spokesman Bob Parker, “We build for peaks, not averages.”

Thanks, I Needed That

Chicago’s O’Hare installed 42 automated defibrillators in an attempt to mitigate the high incidence of heart attacks in airport terminals. Result: A study found that the defibrillators resuscitated 11 of 18 heart attack victims in the two years preceding June 2001. Good Samaritan bystanders, not EMS personnel,
operated the defibrillators in all but two cases.


Empty seats bleed money from the already battered airlines, so considerable math is done to keep planes as full as possible. Overbooking practices, aided in part
by computer modeling, are ever more refined. “Load factor” is up from 60 percent of full capacity on each flight in 1986 to 71 percent in 2000, and is still increasing, despite the drop in overall traffic.

Ticket Calculus

Despite evidence that fliers prefer simpler options like JetBlue, the big airlines use complex algorithms and endless price variations to fill seats with high-fare customers. As the big spenders tend to buy at the last moment, airlines predict how many of them will appear. Guess who gets bumped when they’re wrong?

Thanks for Waiting. Now Get Moving.

Gate delay costs domestic carriers $22.38 a minute, $220 million a year system-wide. A recent mathematical study for America West revealed a way to minimize boarding time by reducing “seat interference”–the phenomenon whereby an already-seated aisle passenger must make way for the guy with the window seat. The strategy should shave 2 to 3 minutes off boarding times.


Nearly 900,000 people were bumped off flights last year; yet only 454, or 0.05 percent of them, complained to the Department of Transportation. The result: Airlines rarely give bumpees more than the $200 DOT-mandated minimum. Explains one executive, “They’re mad no matter what you pay them.”


Outside of an operating room, an airplane is as close as most of us get to complete, voluntary loss of control over our surroundings. Temperature, pressure and humidity are fixed. Seatmates, unless friends or family, are chosen by computer. Bland food arrives in little trays, as if for a toddler. Safe landing is in the hands of pilots, maintenance crews and air traffic controllers. No wonder flying makes most of us a little uneasy–and the airlines know exactly how uneasy we are.

Amazing How Less Feels Like More

Perception is more important than reality when it comes to cabin design. Business travelers prefer Boeing 777’s Signature interior over the cabin of a 747, even though the 747 has more room. “By using curves and light artfully,” wrote Boeing interiors mastermind Klaus Brauer, “[designers] created 3.7 square meters of additional space.”

“Be Careful When Opening Overhead Bins”

Items do shift during flight, and there are an estimated 4,500 injuries a year from falling baggage–someone gets bonked every two hours. Odd-shaped items, such as picture frames, are culprits in more than 80 percent of cases. But the biggest injury risk factor is unclicking that seatbelt: Don’t say they didn’t warn you. Flight attendants, up and about the cabin, are 25 times more likely to be injured by turbulence.

A Nice Tight Fit

Boeing uses data from a $6 million, 4,431-participant anthropometric study to ensure its seats will fit 95 percent of the male population. Through careful study of the seated form, airlines have been able to reduce seat pitch (the distance between rows) from 35 to 31 inches, but have left usable space about the same. Optical illusions don’t hurt: Planes seem bigger when they’re wide at eye level, not at shoulder level.

More Flying, More Fear

Eighteen percent of Americans say they fear flying, and a fifth of these say a life-threatening event such as a near collision triggered their aviophobia (though near misses and horrible turbulence are too rare to account for so many near-death experiences). Aviophobia starts late–25 years old on average–after someone’s flown between seven and 26 times.

Don’t Expect Aguirre, Wrath of God

Airline smash hits, cited by inflight entertainment experts, tend to
be light fare: Four Weddings and a Funeral, When Harry Met Sally, One Fine Day, Jerry Maguire

I Want My Own TV

Personal video screens offer a sliver of control to the helpless creature in 16D. Airlines like them too: When passengers choose what to watch, movies don’t have to be sanitized, which saves money.

Contents Under Pressure

Cabin pressure is held at 8,000 feet, or 0.74 atmospheres. Below that, passengers’ arterial oxygen pressure drops below 62 millibars, and hypoxia–lack of oxygen to the brain–starts to become a concern. Since the pressure difference between the cabin and the outside of the plane can’t get too high, lest it crack the fuselage, commercial airplanes generally cannot fly above 47,000 feet.

Somewhat-Fresh Air

Worried about the guy with the hacking cough five rows forward? Look left and right instead: Aircraft ventilation systems have inflow and outflow ducts in every row, creating radial air circulation. Hospital-grade 0.3-micron HEPA filters clean the recirculated air. A 2002 National Research Council study concluded these reduce but do not eliminate your chances of getting sick.


You may feel that the airline sees you less as a person to be pampered than as a piece of cargo to be transported. Well, yes–and a troublesome piece of cargo, one that needs to eat and drink and move around and perform bodily functions. One with a will and the capacity for discomfort. One that tends to do strange things, like get wasted and demand to see the pilot. If you think it’s bad being a passenger, imagine having to deal with all that finicky human cargo.

One More Over the Edge

There are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 “air rage” incidents every year. About 10 to 20 percent of these episodes are physically violent, and in 13 percent of these cases, the flight is diverted and the passenger kicked off the plane. Unsurprisingly, alcohol is nearly always a contributing factor.

… Or I’ll Eject You

British Airways, based in the land of the football hooligan, gives a soccer-inspired yellow penalty card to unruly passengers. The card reads in part “PLEASE NOW CALM DOWN AND ACT IN A SENSIBLE MANNER SO THAT OUR STAFF CAN DEAL WITH YOUR PROBLEM.” BA says the card works in the vast majority of cases.

That Man’s Got a Gun

The exact number is classified, but the government employs an estimated 3,000 air marshals as inflight undercover agents, protecting 140,000 flights per week on the major carriers. An additional 5,000 customs and immigration agents are now being cross-trained for the program.

“Arizona, We Have a Problem”

When inflight medical emergencies occur, the flight crew must decide whether the case is serious (read: life-threatening) enough to divert the plane, which costs the airline up to $80,000. Many airlines leave the decision to MedAire,
a company operating out of an emergency room in Tempe, Arizona. When
a flight crew calls, a doctor is pulled from the emergency staff and put on the phone to determine what’s wrong–and decide if the flight must immediately land. Of the 8,465 calls MedAire received in 2002, 414 warranted diversion.

Mmmm, This is Tasty!

Airlines are working hard to jettison their food duties–offering only snacks even on long-haul flights or employing buy-on-board schemes that charge extra for tastier meals. The explanation is simple: With coast-to-coast tickets costing as little as $99, the $3.04 (US Air) to $10.05 (Midwest Express) that airlines spend on the average meal can take a big bite out of revenues.


Coach, Box or Coffin?

If you still feel more like cargo than treasured guest, here’s what it costs to ship you, a 180-pound passenger with a 20-pound bag, in
(1) a seat in coach from Newark to L.A., (2) a box in the cargo hold, and (3) a coffin on that same flight. In coach: $243; in a box: $168; in a coffin: $584

The Great Irradiated Yonder

Much has been made of the health effects to airline passengers of galactic radiation, which is more intense at high altitudes and toward the poles, but there is little cause for alarm. Even on the trips with the highest
radiation exposure levels–long-range, high-latitude routes such as New York City?Tokyo–passengers are exposed to about the same amount of radiation they would get in two weeks on the ground, from sources such as naturally occurring radon.

Bon Voyage

Twenty percent of American adults report that they’ve never flown. If you are one of them, please don’t be alarmed. At least now you know what you’re missing–and forewarned is forearmed.

Eyes in the Sky

The great research project never ends: To learn what you want and what you can tolerate, airlines employ their flight attendants as researchers. The most popular meals and movies–and any complaints–get reported just after the flight ends, then tabulated by the customer service department. When an airline introduces a new service, or a trial period begins, some airlines dispatch plainclothes spies to sit onboard and observe passengers during the
flight. Remember: You are always being studied.