March 20, 2009

what do middle seats on airplanes and the current recession have in common?


1. One of my pet peeves when traveling [and I travel quite a bit these days] is when I get assigned to the middle seat on an airplane.

We all know why; we all know middle seats are uncomfortable and nasty. We all know that they basically suck.

Sure, the good airline folk will tell me, they've already booked all the window and aisle seats. They've only got middle seats left. Sorry etc.

Which always makes me think to myself, "Those middle seats shouldn't be on the airplane in the first place".

Middle seats are, to me, a product of a different era. They were invented when the first long distance jet airliners came around, the Boeing 707, the VC-10 etc etc. Before that they just had aisles and windows.

Thirty or forty years ago, airplanes were designed before the airline industry was deregulated, when air travel was REALLY expensive. When people had far fewer choices.

Jet Blue currently buys long, skinny airplanes to make getting rid of the middle seat economically viable. But they're a new airline. Older, larger, more established airlines are still beholden to their old, fat airplanes, stuffed to the brim with middle seats.

It won't happen overnight, but there will come a time when offering your airline customers a middle seat will be tantamount to economic suicide.

Because people simply don't want middle seats. They never did. And they'll gladly take their business over to someone who doesn't have them on offer.

This middle-seat-free day arriving will great news for us customers, of course. But not if you're "Middle Seat Guy".

2. Middle Seat Guy is the guy at the airline whose job it is to figure out the middle seats- how many of them they can cram onto a plane, and how to sell middle seats as efficiently as possible [to people who never wanted them to begin with].

Suddenly, he's out of a job. People aren't buying middles seats anymore, suddenly the world has no more use for his services. He's at home; he's bitter, he feels personally betrayed by the airline who employed him for twenty years. His life sucks and he's hitting the bottle before noon etc.

Whether we're talking about airlines or any other kind of business, the fact is, the Internet has made it MUCH harder to sell your customers metaphorical "Middle Seats". And the punishment for trying to get away with it keeps on getting more swift and severe.

3. No, we don't want to give you $7500.00 in order to help you pay off your six-figure student loans from Law School. We'd much rather download something off the internet that does the same job for $99.99.

No, we don't want be interrupted by you, so you can show us your well-crafted, multi-million dollar marketing message about how wonderful your client's automobiles are. We'd much rather get the skinny from an online forum.

No, we don't want to buy your generic, cardboard-tasting, mass-produced cookies from the local convenience store; we'd rather order some online from this Trappist Monk Weirdo Lumberjack in Alaska, who makes by-hand-in-tiny-batches THE MOST AMAZING cookies ever.

No, we don't want to buy your $25 bottle of nasty, Califonian vinegar. We'd rather buy this great little $10 Australian red that this cool wine blogger turned us on to.

4. The only time I really watch TV is when I'm staying in a hotel room, like I was last weekend while visiting Austin for SXSW. Usually I just turn on CNN, and listen to the pundits blether on. Background noise. Fairly mindless stuff.

It was quite a disconnect for me to hear the guys on CNN yapping endlessly on about THE RECESSION, in contrast to all the groovy cats I met at SXSW, who told me how their businesses were booming. It was like two alternate universes colliding. Which one was the real one?

To anyone reading this who has lost their job to the recession recently, first let me say how sorry I am to hear that. I lost my job during the last recession, and I know how rotten it can be. I utterly sympathize.

That being said, while I'm watching CNN I keep asking myself the same question. What percentage of these recession victims were just plain, randomly unlucky, and how many were in the business of selling metaphorical "Middle Seats" before they got laid off?

I don't know what's going to happen in this recession in the long run. I do know, however, that a lot of Middle Seat Guys, i.e. those who currently make their living via "The Ignorance Premium", are going to be suddenly out of work, with ZERO idea about what to do next. I hope that doesn't include you.

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Posted by hugh macleod at March 20, 2009 8:00 PM | TrackBack

amen, brother!
this is so perfect and so true.
thank you for putting it into a language that entertains me & has me thanking my lucky stars that I am MSG Free!

Posted by: debora at March 20, 2009 9:11 PM

we are NOT in a recession we're in a transition!

Posted by: ming at March 20, 2009 10:28 PM

Hugh, why the hell are you not on CNN, MSNBC, etc? A large part of the recession has to do with the media reporting it without context. The other part of it the elimination of the guy selling the middle seat.

Killer post.

Posted by: Brian at March 20, 2009 11:04 PM

I'm afraid there is something very odd about your middle-seat logic. JetBlue only flies US routes so they can probably get away with only flying planes with 2-2 configurations. There is a point on the curve where a passenger jet with that configuration cannot be operated economically over a longer distance. So as long as jets fly trans-atlantic, you will always have middle-seats.

And by the way, I fly at least twice a month and I NEVER get the middle-seat. Middle seats are for people who don't know how to use online check-in or arrive late for meatspace check-in.

Posted by: Leon Jacobs at March 21, 2009 12:32 AM

Spooky coincidence. I'm sitting in Dubai working on the manuscript for that lawyer knowledge download you're talking about. (I'm an international tax lawyer). I'm betting I'm better off telling all in an ebook for (relative) peanuts than selling $10K consulting gigs. Hope you're right! I like to eat and sleep in a warm, dry place. :-)

Gotta stop now. Off to a Tweetup.


Posted by: Phil Hodgen at March 21, 2009 1:50 AM

Yeah baby I fucking well dig it the most.

More vitriol please.

Posted by: Jake Edwards at March 21, 2009 4:32 AM

Everyone knows that AIRPLANE ETIQUETTE states that the dude in the middle seat gets both armrests. It's the way.

Posted by: e at March 21, 2009 5:17 AM

The recession is over ; the "old media" is still in the "middle seat" ; the new media is sitting on the aisle talking to the other person on the aisle and striking a new deal

Posted by: Moise Levi at March 21, 2009 8:14 AM

I think the middle seat guys in the last recession were known as "middle managers".

People regard the edges as most risky, but in times like these they can be a safer bet than the "safe ground".

Posted by: Alice Bachini-Smith at March 21, 2009 10:55 AM

Hugh, I love a lot of what you write, but there is no way that the middle seat will ever disappear. I understand the metaphor, but it's a simple matter of economics.

If anything, the "middle seat" syndrome is likely to get worse with increased exposure to more environmentally-friendly "blended wing" aircraft. Forget two aisles with 9 seats wide. The future is looking like high (30,40..50) seats wide with who knows how many aisles.

Posted by: Joe at March 22, 2009 9:40 PM


Posted by: SeltPeloUnola at March 23, 2009 7:43 AM

"No, we don't want to buy your $25 bottle of nasty, Califonian vinegar"

Ouch. I'm sad to hear that this is how the world sees Sonoma County now. Oh well, guess nobody gets to be the upstart forever.

Posted by: Geoff at March 26, 2009 2:11 PM

That's so insightful of you ;) You've hit the nail right on the head.
The recession is just an excuse to cut out the wasteful flack that was dead weight, and not creating any real value. The sooner people understand that, the sooner they'll realise that people have been laid off, and jobs been lost all the time.. Only difference now is that the newspapers are trying to "find" it to report on it, whilst before there were more exciting things to talk about, like war, terror, and terrorists..

That's all gotten old, boring, and drab, so now they're spending all their time trying to create a new illusion of something being newsworthy when it really isn't.

Like most of the people you met at SXSW, if people are offering "real" value, then they most definitely will be thriving in these times :)

Thanks for writing that.. I'm glad you've really hit the nail on the head, with that analogy ;)

Posted by: Farhan Rehman at March 27, 2009 10:38 AM

Middle seat,

Window or aisle seat, no legroom, unreliable service, charges through the nose? No way.

Posted by: Miles Archer at March 28, 2009 10:15 AM

Oh, and California wine - there is still some good value, especially from wineries outside of Sonoma and Napa.

By the way, you'd appreciate how A Donkey and a Goat winery is using Facebook.

Posted by: Miles Archer at March 28, 2009 10:19 AM

I keep trying to buy that $10 pinotage and I still can't find someone who is selling it in the DC Metro Region, despite having asked several stores to look into acquiring some...

Posted by: entropy at March 31, 2009 12:14 PM