Thursday, June 11, 2009

Slathering Passengers with Oil

By Kerry Smith

I opened the paper today to discover that the traveling public's old nemesis is back at it again. Les LeGroom has been an insidious presence in the airline industry for a long time but his influence is having an ever greater reach with a new rash of aircraft deliveries. Airlines are taking possession of airplanes that have same-size cabins as earlier ones but with the important distinction of having more seats crammed into them. Les has been up to this trick of squeezing humanity into tighter and tighter spaces for quite some time. Airlines have been hiring him as a key consultant ever since he left the sardine canning industry.

Les LeGroom is an ideas man who produces results and that is why the airlines love him. Openly admitting that he would never himself invest in airline stock because of their notoriously razor thin margins, he nevertheless is willing to roll up his sleeves and get down to business for them. Lately, a brainchild of his has been to remove food galleys from planes, making for more passenger capacity. That in itself has not had horrendous implications for frequent fliers; perhaps it has even been an improved quality of life issue for them. However, it is rumored that based on his advice, there will soon be 50 to 75% fewer heads on board and not the kind that sprout hair; in aeronautical speak we are talking about the reduction of restrooms.

What credence should be given to this chatter? As odds would have it, earlier this year an independent journalist and blogger covering a paper products trade show in Foshan, China tripped over a small display of adult diapers, their waistbands imprinted with generic airline wings. Her inquiries were quickly silenced when she answered that she was not with a Mr. LeGroom. The booth's manager threw a tarp over the pile, saying "This prototype. No ATB orders today." A quick Baidu search answered her questions as to who the mysterious Mr. LeGroom was and that the acronym ATB stood for Airline Travel Brief. Even the mathematically disinclined can see where this is going.

Les has also come up with seat designs that are supposed to eliminate any perception of tighter space on board. These seat structures are thinner, with a bottom that somehow miraculously slides forward to produce a reclining position that doesn't compromise the knee room of the passenger in the seat behind. Not fully understanding this concept when I read it in the paper, I tried to replicate the described tilting motion with my office chair and immediately bruised my knee on my keyboard tray. I guess it's just one of those things that need to be seen to be believed

The axiom less is more has its limitations. In this case, Les is just plain less for consumers. His vision for the future is airport terminals that look and smell like bus stations, only with a heavier security detail going on. The odd thing with people is that when you really jam them together, there is often less civility and a lot more hostility. Of course, all this is subtly being pushed on to us over a carefully measured timeframe. It may take that new proposed boarding gate installation, the Sardine Oil Sprayer (acronym SOS), to bring about a real revolution.

(Readers: Please note that this is a reprint of an earlier publication in which I unintentionally misspelled a certain gentleman's name. Since then, I received a polite email stating that in fact, Les LeGroom is spelled Less LegRoom.)

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