When is Discrimination not Discrimination
When is Discrimination not Discrimination?
A light-hearted look at the time I didn’t fit into an airplane seat provided to me by Etihad Airways, what follows is 100% accurate and unedited exchange between myself and Derek, the Air NZ customer service rep. It started with a letter to the CEO
Dear Mr Luxon
I’m writing to let you know about my experience with your airline. I thought I’d write directly to you because I’ve watched that television show Undercover Boss, and wonder why CEOs go to so much effort just to get a handle on what’s happening on the shop floor. So in an effort to save you the trouble of a wig and a fake moustache, I’ve detailed both what happened and how I think it could be solved in future.
It’s not really in my nature to complain, so I’ve attempted to make this enjoyable for the both of us (hence the included M&Ms). However I hope the tone of this email isn’t misconstrued as a lack of seriousness. While I’ll freely admit that on a scale of world problems mine sits squarely in the first world category, it aggrieved me enough to spend a fair bit of time on writing this letter.
My story begins, as all good stories should, on Christmas Day. I was scheduled to fly to Singapore. The flight, although a bit chaotic at the airport, started brilliantly, we flew on a Boeing 777 to Brisbane, and I was amazed to find that for the extra $40 my partner and I opted to spend on a preferred seat, we found ourselves in premium economy.
You see I’m 6’6” or 2m in the system we currently use, and I have a frame that landed me the nickname ‘Daddy Long Legs’ in primary school. So while I disagree vehemently with the idea that tall people should have to pay more, I regularly choose to bite the bullet and front up the extra cash.
There’s a saying in golf that you should never birdie the first, because it means you’ll shoot thousands and unfortunately this applies here. For the second leg of my flight, which was operated by Etihad, from Brisbane to Singapore, I wasn’t able to pre-book a seat online. I tried both through Air New Zealand and Etihad prior to check-in but with no luck. So when I arrived at Auckland Airport, I asked the check-in assistant if they could request a seat with extra legroom for my next flight I was told this wasn’t possible and that I would have to do it when I arrived in Brisbane.
After a delightful flight to Brisbane, operated by your excellent crew, I was told that all seats on the Etihad plane were full. Fortunately I had been kindly allocated a regular seat in the very last row of the plane. Once boarded, I recognised that contrary to my suspicions, my 5th form physics teacher hadn’t been lying. Within this world there are certain infallible truths, and one of those, I now know, is that no matter how hard you try, a man of my height simply cannot fit into seating designed for hobbits.
When I politely made this point known to the crew, they told me there was nothing that could be done. So with my knees waging the kind of war against the seat in front that would make tectonic plates proud, we set off on our 8 hour journey to Singapore. After take-off, the gentleman in front of me, I didn’t catch his name so I’ll refer to him as Mr Jackass, decided to recline his seat, the battle was over, I had lost.
Sensing my discomfort, a nice man to my right showed me that with a bit of trickery, the aisle armrest could be lifted, thus allowing me to swing both legs out into the aisle. However this unfortunately only transferred the pain from my knees to my shins, as a procession of drinks carts, meal carts, airline staff and every toilet goer south of the middle proceeded to kick me and/or run over my feet. For the next couple of hours I therefore continued to alternate between knee, shin and foot pain depending on what went best with the movie I was attempting to watch.
At meal time – the supposed highlight of all long haul flying – the embarrassment of my predicament reached new levels. Given the lack of legroom, it was impossible to make the tray table lay flat. The air hostess who served me my first meal initially seemed perplexed by this development, however sensing a challenge she attacked the tray table with all the determination of a loose forward at the breakdown. The repeated ramming of the table downwards did little to change the situation, other than to render a fresh set of bruises on my knees. I resigned myself to eating my meal off the floor, which incidentally, isn’t so bad.
Unfortunately each meal brought with it a new Etihad air hostess or blunt force trauma exponent as they might be more aptly renamed. Despite my protests, they each took up the challenge of making my tray table go flat with ever increasing vigour. Eventually though, each hostess was forced to concede that my initial assessment of the situation was correct, I simply did not fit in the seat.
Whittling away the hours while I was growing an increasingly deep dent in both knees, I resolved to write to you and let you know just how bad Etihad are. Not only is their standard legroom comfortably the worst in class, (I have flown domestically on Jetstar and on Vietjet, and I can say from a place of no exaggeration, they have more legroom than what was offered to me on this long-haul flight) the way their cabin crew handled the whole thing was rather demeaning. I’m not a sensitive guy, but they made me feel particularly awkward, highly embarrassed and mostly just shit for being tall, some way to spend Christmas. They also ran out of the meal that I wanted but that isn’t really related to me being tall.
Two and a half weeks later, on the 10th of January, after a lovely holiday in South East Asia, (in which I took numerous domestic flights with Vietnam Airlines who happily arranged a complimentary exit row seat each time), my partner and I boarded flight NZ80 from Hong Kong to Auckland. Eager not to have a repeat experience, we spent an additional $68 to get a preferred seat which claimed to have extra leg room. Once on board I discovered this not to be the case, and when a relative of Mr Jackass reclined, I resumed what I now call the kermadec position.
Again I pointed this out to the cabin crew member who informed me nothing could be done. When I expressed my disappointment given I had paid more for a preferred seat with extra leg room which I clearly didn’t have, a seat with extra leg room suddenly became available, although it meant leaving my partner.
All this is to say, that I can’t help but think there must be a better way to deal with tall people on aircrafts. Fundamentally the idea that a tall person should have to pay more, because they physically don’t fit in a seat borders on discrimination. I understand the airline industry is a tough gig to make money in, however I work in a design company, so I also know that when you, or any airline, designs a plane’s interior, they know full well that not everyone will be able to fit into it. My stats days are long behind me, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with 3 standard deviations from the mean.
To think you’d do this without a contingency plan for the outliers is either incredibly negligent or just mercenary. Yes I’m rather tall, but by no means the tallest person in the world, nor am I an NBA star with the means to pay for business class.
At high school I had a part time retail job, whenever I took a problem to my boss, he’d say Oliver, there are only two types of people in the world, problem creators and problem solvers, which one do you want to be? Since I’ve talked at length about the problem, I’d like to discuss a couple of options for solving it. Because at 26 years of age, most of my flying (both for work and for pleasure) is still ahead of me, making this is an on-going pain in the knee.
Here are just a few options I’ve thought of on my ferry ride to work this morning (Incidentally Fullers provides a delightful amount of legroom):
- Quid Pro Quo – One thing tall people are really good at is reaching things, I get asked to do it all the time on the plane or at the supermarket. One thing your smaller flight attendants struggle with is moving bags around in the overhead compartments. What if, at the time of boarding and disembarking, designated tall people helped passengers stow and retrieve their luggage, you could give us a high-vis vest so we’d look professional. In return, we got a seat with extra leg room for free.
- An Air NZ Tall Flyers Club, for a yearly subscription fee, people over a certain height would get priority on seats with extra leg room at time of booking. This yearly fee would be priced not to exploit the demand curve, but rather as a genuine reflection of what it costs to carry tall people.
- Seats on sliding tracks, this one takes a little more work, but what if we put airplane seats on sliding tracks like car seats? That way everyone could get exactly as much leg room as they need. Of course it relies on people not to hog, but I think under the right circumstances, people are capable of compassion. Except for Mr Jackass, he was a dick.
I genuinely believe that with my determination and your open mind, we can come to an innovative solution that is both practical for tall people, continues to distinguish Air NZ as the airline who cares, and keeps the bean counters happy. Thank you for your time, I really hope this resonates with you and I would of course be more than happy to talk to you or any one of your team regarding the issues outlined above.