Boeing 747 Nostalgia

One of my most memorable childhood vacations involved two weeks in Hawaii. Aside from the allure of the islands, I suppose the reason it was particularly memorable was because my parents required each child to contribute $100 to the project, no small goal when my brothers and I were just 8, 9, 11 and 13.

When we arrived at the airport to begin the trip, we installed ourselves at the gate, and my brothers and I rushed to the window to see our plane. Holy cow: It was a Boeing 747! A jumbo jet! A new aircraft at the time, the 747 was a big deal even to children. Decades later, I can still recall that, ironically, our departure was delayed for several hours: mechanical!

The 747 is such a distinctive aircraft, with its long and illustrious history, that many passengers carry memories of flights and strong feelings about the experience onboard. The look of the plane is unusual enough that even non–Av geeks can immediately ID it. I liken the 747’s beauty to that of Barbra Streisand: ironic, striking, unforgettable, but not conventionally pretty.

However, while the 747 may be passenger-friendly, it is not airline-friendly. It’s expensive to operate and many airlines have already replaced it with the 777. This week I contributed a post to The Bay Area Traveler that looks into the disappearance of the 747, specifically from SFO.

What has been your experience on the 747? Is its move toward extinction tragic or non-too-soon?

When Cheerless Flight Attendants Offer Cheerful Greetings

Yesterday I came across a when-the-marketing-department-goes-too-far term: branded salutation. In a blog post this week, Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist who focuses on the science behind learning, writes that Walgreens employees have been instructed to complete customer transactions with the branded salutation, “Thank you and be well.” Huh? A Walgreens public relations comment notes the purpose of the script is to align the employee communication with the company’s goals.

Noble thought. That doesn’t work. The branded salutation falls flat because there is another piece of alignment to consider. According to Paul, research indicates that when there is not alignment between the scripts given to employees and how employees are actually feeling, the result is toxic. She says social scientists call this surface acting:

Surface acting is when front line service employees, the ones who interact directly with customers, have to appear cheerful and happy even when they’re not feeling it. This kind of faking is hard work—sociologists call it “emotional labor”—and research shows that it’s often experienced as stressful. It’s psychologically and even physically draining; it can lead to lowered motivation and engagement with work, and ultimately to job burnout.

I suspect surface acting is toxic not just for the employee, but also for the customer.

The customer-facing segment of the travel business is all about hospitality, and hospitality is built around warm welcomes, something not well faked. Here’s an example of a hotel company that “gets” authentic service.

But in the airline business, a large number of customer-facing employees (think flight attendants) have been beaten down by decades of rancorous labor disputes and increasingly exhausting job demands. Yet customers and management expect them to exude warmth and friendliness. (For the record, many do.) United has even built its brand DNA around the friendly skies.

The next time you board a plane, notice which flight attendants standing in the galley and greeting you are surface acting and which truly mean their “Welcome aboard.” I will be feeling more compassion for those who exude surliness, perhaps forced to do the emotional labor of acting cheerful when not.

Backseat Drivers Not Welcome

I am not a nervous flyer, but every once in a while I will observe something that concerns me.  Inevitably this leads to an internal debate about whether I should second-guess the pros. After all, the pilots have wall-to-wall indicators and sensors to monitor problems. Flight attendants have heard it all, too. What makes me think I have noticed something life-threatening that they haven’t?

Recently, I watched out the window as my plane was de-iced, and there was not a doubt in my mind that a foot-long patch of ice remained on the top of the wing. I worried. I mean, how much experience could de-icer guys in Charlotte really have? And who checks their work? Luckily, the more rational side of my brain restrained me from calling a flight attendant over and looking like an idiot. Ten minutes later (once we were safely in the air), I forgot all about it and lost myself in a book.

When I asked Chris Cooke, Executive Travel’s pilot-columnist, about de-icing, he said the pilots are ultimately responsible for being sure it’s adequate: “After de-icing…during precipitation, the first officer is required to go back into the cabin and look out at the wings to assess the coverage.”

Learning this, I felt a little relieved to know checking procedures are in place. (The fact that the first officer on my flight did not come into the cabin, would have concerned me had I learned this prior to my flight, however.) In any case, I obviously made it home safely.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed something awry on a flight. Once I escorted a colleague to her gate and watched her aircraft taxi away with a burst of flames out the back. There was no one to ask about this as I walked to my own gate, so I breathed a sigh of relief when I knew she reached her destination safely. (I subsequently learned this is not an uncommon or unsafe occurrence.) USA Today’s Ask the Captain column covers a plethora of questions readers ask about sounds on flights that concern them. So I’m not alone.

Homeland Security’s campaign “If you see something, say something,” perhaps makes sense in spotting terrorist activity but would be annoying for airlines if passengers did the same. Backseat drivers not welcome! Have you ever observed something unusual on a flight and thought about ringing the call button?

Love Travel? Hate Travel?

Enter a meetup of twenty- and thirty-somethings and mingle. Begin to discuss passions and life goals over a glass of wine. In my experience, at least half the people you talk to will wax poetically about seeing the world. “I love to travel,” they say. Travel is about exploration, meeting interesting people, challenging yourself. “It’s my passion.”

Then enter a cocktail networking reception at a conference for mid- to high-level executives, and start introducing yourself. At least half the people you talk to will complain about the stress of travel. “I hate to travel,” they say. Travel is about being away from loved ones, the burden of managing an office while away, and a painful way of getting from point A to point B. “I’m burned out.”

I may be exaggerating a little. But the fact is, it’s easy to love travel and it’s easy to hate travel. Business travelers tend to fall a little closer to the latter.

Unfortunately for business travelers, the journey becomes a means to an end, and so much of the fun goes away. It’s more about making the sale. Nailing the keynote. Coalescing the team. Whatever the business goal of the trip was. And the means—getting there—sucked.

For the passionate travelers, there is no business goal. The goal is just to see something new, beautiful and stimulating. “Isn’t that cool?” is goal enough. Getting there disappears from memory once the cool begins.

The cool of travel can be elusive for biz travelers. The most fabulous sight or event is dulled when flying solo. I’ve had so many cool experiences on business trips—flying in a private jet to the Taj Mahal, stepping onto the glass balcony of the Willis Tower Skydeck, chatting with celebrity chefs, dining in a hangar at IAH (not to mention so many fine, fine meals at the best restaurants in the universe)—all made a little hollow because I was not with those I care about. And chances are, the older you get, the more people get left behind when you’re on the road.

It’s hard to love travel when you do it for work. And the more you do it, the harder it gets. (The committed and focused few are able to turn the trip into a journey in creativity.)

Do you love travel? Or hate travel?

Sobbing at 30,000 Feet

I’m sure every magazine has staff-favorite story ideas that never quite make it to print, and one we discuss at least once a year at Executive Travel is why many people seem to experience heightened emotions while up in the air. This week I came across the story I wish we’d run, over at The Atlantic, called “Why We Cry on Planes.”

Have you had this experience? You get engrossed in the inflight movie and all of a sudden you find yourself all choked up, maybe even sobbing into your blanket. Meanwhile your conscious self goes, “This is weird…why am I crying at this?” I cried my way cross-country once while watching Rudy. A friend said he cried unexpectedly watching Legally Blond 2: Red, White and Blond on a flight. (What’s up with that? except that my friend is a very political guy.)

While there are theories about the airplane sob, none are conclusive. Some hypotheses:

Air pressure/altitude. This is my personal favorite, even if I base it on my dubious made-up science. (There is some research that indicates people experience more intense emotions at high altitude, but truthfully, I’m not sure it translates to the cabin environment.) I’d be curious to know whether adult crying is lessened on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, since the plane is pressurized to the equivalent of 6,000 feet (due to its structure built from composite materials), vs. 6,900 feet on the B-767 for example. If your ability to taste is altered by altitude, why not your emotional makeup?

Stress or relief from it. I’ve talked to some flight attendants and airline execs who espouse this theory. The whole travel experience is so stressful these days that getting into the seat and relaxing with a movie may produce a let-down that loosens up the emotions.

What’s left behind. I suspect most flights have a handful of passengers onboard who have just begun separations from loved ones. I cried for five hours straight on a flight, having just said good-bye to my father, who I had a suspicion I would not see again. (And as it turned out, he died while I was on the flight.)

The act of sitting alone. The Atlantic story makes a good case for why grieving often happens in cars: There’s time for contemplation. The same theory could hold true for planes. Interesting, though, that on a plane we’re alone, but not. We may have no one to talk to, so get lost in thoughts. However, we’re practically intimate with our seatmates and within earshot of hundreds of other passengers. Does the very fact that we’re surrounded by strangers make us more emotional, or cause us to stifle and hide the tears (thus, the very useful blanket)?

Babies seem quite open to crying on planes, and perhaps we should look no further than classic reasons for baby’s tears: tired, hungry and/or uncomfortable. These days, just about every passenger can relate.

Have you ever cried unabashedly while watching an inflight movie?