OPINION: Airline business model must be overhauled

A corporate governance expert is the latest to add her voice to the growing chorus of those calling for a complete overhaul of the airline industry.

Though outlets ranging from NBC News to the Business Travel Coalition to the National Consumers League to TheTravelPro  have been making the argument, literally for years, the cry is becoming decidedly louder.

Ryn Melberg, who hosts the Guardian Podcast, says recent acts of airline passenger and employee violence defy American culture, human evolution and even human neurobiology. In this article, which is republished with her permission, she discusses the issue from a governance point of view.


By Ryn Melberg

Ryn Melberg
It’s not nice to fool or fool with Mother Nature

Despite decades of study and persistent feedback from the flying public, the airline industry refuses to change from a model based on low price to one grounded on value and service. Jamming more people into less space is the way the airlines have decided to make more money. But that comes at a price in public trust, reputation and invites government regulation.

Well publicized acts of violence on airlines are caused because of the American culture of personal space and associated neurobiology according to Melberg. The good news is that these issues could be overcome if airlines acknowledged and acted on them, but the other news is that the airlines business model makes any near term change unlikely. “The airlines want to squeeze more people into less space and the American people hate that,” Ryn said.

There are good reasons for this, according to Ryn. “Americans are big relative to population and because of the land mass,” she said. “As a result, Americans have a larger personal space around them We do not like to stand too close to each other and will back away from those who invade our personal space.”


This is where brain functions and culture take over from people who are normally rational. As people who are used to more personal space are forced into a smaller one, the frontal cortex shuts down and the hypothalamus comes on, which switches on the fight or flight mechanism. “So rational thinking is replaced by panic,” she said. “Instead of feeling cramped, people feel they are being attacked.”

Add another aspect of American culture to an already volatile mix, the aspect of personal violence. “When Americans are unhappy with the behavior of another, we hit each other,” Ryn said. “Where in other parts of the world people will hit objects or property, but not other people. In the U.S. people take a tire iron and hit each other, in other parts of the world they take the tire iron and hit the car. When everyone is in fight or flight mode, nothing good will happen.”

Employees Similarly Affected

The same neural biology that drives passengers into the fight or flight mode impacts the airlines employees. Flight attendants and gate agents who are also jammed into the same tiny space also have the same cultural sensitivities as the passengers. “Just because people are paid to fly or be on board does not make them immune to the circumstances of the more crowded environment,” Ryn said. “That neural biology is part of their internal programming just as it is for the flying public.”

Passengers Growing

Literally, the people on the flights are getting bigger. As people gain two inches in height every generation, they also get wider. Better food, better medicine means we attain our full height. “I’m 5’10” and 3 inches taller than my mom,” Ryn said. “Airlines should be thinking about this.”

How To Fix The Airlines

According to Ryn, the entire business model will have to be redone. “The auto industry provides a great example of how to segment customer appeal based on benefits that are not based solely on price,” she said. “An airline could provide value passengers would not mind paying for by specializing in things like on time departures, larger and more comfortable seats, free Wi-Fi, free luggage, more frequent upgrades or other things that people value when they are travelling. A business model based on price alone is not sustainable; it’s a race to the bottom.”

Ryn discussed the airline violence issue from a governance point of view on her regular program, the Guardian Podcast with Ryn Melberg. The podcast is available through iTunes, Soundcloud or at www.rynmelberg.com.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo provided by Ryn Melberg
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