Put it into perspective: Back in the 1930s, you’d spend tens of thousands in today’s money crossing the Atlantic from New York to the UK. The whole thing would take you between 5-7 days.
But now we take jet airplanes, for about 5-10% or so of the cost of the 1930’s Queen Mary, in only 5-7 hours (less than 1/20th of the time). All this while surfing the internet, watching a movie, texting our friends from 35,000 feet and sipping on a cold drink. Not to mention, air travel is the safest form of travel known to man.
Air travel is a miracle, if you think about it. Yet, being the sinners we are, we tend to take it for granted.
This is not a new problem, of course, and behavior spreads. Bad behavior faster than good. And the more it spreads, the more normalized it becomes in our culture.
But why is this amplified on airplanes?
Short answer: Context and environment have an outsized impact on behavior.
Unfortunately, the flying experience starts with some super negative signaling. This became especially true when the Federal Government amped up security by forming the TSA, two months after 9-11.
The act of entering an airport starts with the removal of personal sovereignty. If you linger at a curb, you will be ticketed. If your bag is overweight, you are screwed. Inside, you are scanned, told explicitly what you can and cannot take with you, and people must submit or be punished. Often surly people are yelling at you about your laptops, shoes, and belts. It is now also taken for granted that if you wish to consume anything at an airport, it will cost 2-3X what it does in the wild.
The experience is cloaked in the premise of security. It is an authoritarian, rule-based environment, where any feeling of control is taken from you. It is weirdly dystopian, strangely authoritarian, other-worldly.
Once you are physically on the plane, it gets even worse. Rules morph into laws, messages you have heard hundreds of times are repeated endlessly. Submission is the rule. Not to mention, you’re packed in like sardines with people you don’t know or particularly care for, and bossed around by people who you thought were there to help you.
In short, we take adults who value their freedom, personal sovereignty and free will, place them in an oppressive environment where they’re treated like children, and then wonder why some percentage of them act out like children.
The reality is the only way to have an enjoyable flight experience these days seems to be to fully submit to what is done to you: Expect the worst, and you mostly get through unscathed. Maybe.
To be clear, people need to behave, not be stupid, and leave their solipsism at home. But there are second order consequences from the way the system treats people.
A system that we have a hunch was borne out of the origins of many airline executives, the Air Force. Rule based, ‘Air Force Instructions’ literally tell you what you may and may not do. They are mostly accepted as law, but as USAF Chief of Staff, General David Allvin has said: ‘they are only instructions, not mandates.’
Behavior is a manifestation of cultural systems. The culture around air travel lives in the open. We all see it. We all have some control in changing it, but accept it unquestionably.
It’s no different at work. What are the things that you accept as ‘just the way things are done,’ and never question?
Culture is designable, but you have to see it first.