# 83: SPECIAL (Part I): Why My World Is Poorer Without Planes in the Air —and How Stories Can Change That
I do not have a Senator Status or access to the LH Business Lounge. I never traveled First or Business Class on a scheduled flight. My Miles & More account shows exactly 1,464 Award Miles and 0 Status Miles as of Sept. 2020. I did not board a plane since January this year when the crisis started. One might think, I am not an interesting client for airlines who mostly make money with business passengers and millionaire jet setters.
But that is not true. I miss flying because my life has been shaped by travel and many hours in the air — in good, in bad, and in extremely shitty times.
The reason why my mileage account looks so poor is because I hold mileage accounts at many others airlines and I usually travel low fare. That is because for most of my life, I paid for my trips myself or I had some additional funding from public foundations. In the past two years, I also traveled as a business passenger but again, I paid for this myself because I traveled as the CEO of my own company. That does not gain you many award points but it does keep you in the air a lot.
I would not be who I am today without the many hours that I spent on planes. But the time you spend in the air is not everything that I connect with planes. Flying to me consists of the entire experience — the time you spend at the airport before taking off and the time you spend at your destination. If I wanted to write a book about this today and not just an essay, I would add the time you spend packing at home as well as the time you spend abroad until boarding the plane back again. In short, travel is tightly linked to flying — and to the life time you invest in it.
These days, the skies are empty. There is not much flying going on. And I have the feeling, people are not even flying that much anymore in their imagination. That is sad. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince once said:
“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”
This is actually the reason why I feel like expressing some thoughts on the current situation of the airlines. I do not work for an airline, I only know a few people who do so, and I am not being pushed by anybody from an airline to write about this. One might say — why does she care? But I do because it makes me really sad to see all this polarized discourse about the airline industry in Corona times. And it makes me even more sad to look at the empty sky. You have to know, I wanted to become a pilot after finishing school. But things turned out differently.
Airlines seem to have taken the place of cigarettes in some sense. In the 1960s and 70s, everyone was smoking like hell. You hardly see a movie or talk show from this time in which people do not sit in the middle of a huge blueish-grey smoke cloud. Then, bit by bit, all the talk about cigarettes hurting your health started circulating. More people quit smoking but it is highly unlikely that all people will. And since we have the e-cigarette now, people simply switched to a supposedly healthier and more climate-neutral way of smoking. What remains is the fact that people are still smoking. Some because they have to — their addicted bodies long for it. And many more because they want to — they enjoy it.
The sad part is: You can light a cigarette — both analog and electronic — any time these days. Corona has done many things to people’s liberty but smoking prohibition is not part of it. But you cannot just hop on a plane unless you have your own, which is only the case for very few people. Flying takes an industry and an infrastructure that allows you to go. And this industry is falling apart without self-inflicted reasons.
Sure, the under-aged smart asses who like protesting in the streets every Friday might say now: “No crisis happens without any self-made reasons. For sure, the airline industry also made mistakes in the past. It was wrong to rely so much on capitalist business clients. And it was even more wrong to not start developing alternative fuel and technology to fly with less pollution earlier. This is why it is actually great that the crisis makes them rethink their business to become sustainable.”
The thing with smart asses is always, especially if they are too young for their supposed level of intellect, that these people know everything better retrospectively and prospectively. But for the present moment, the here and now when people and companies need help, they have no pragmatic solutions. Just imagine if someone all of a sudden found out that Friday’s for Future demonstrations were all fake and sponsored by some mega mogul whose goal it is to brainwash the generation Z. What would they do? And would they not still argue that the demonstrations create value for society — despite some negative side effects and ill reasons behind them?
What I want to say with this little thought experiment is that the airline industry needs to reinvent itself right now. The blaming does not help. The sooner it does that, the more we can hope that as many airlines as possible will survive. And answers to this are not easy to find. Yes, we can hope that the virus will be over soon and people start flying again. And yes, we can of course be sure that flying will also become more climate-friendly in the future. These things will most likely happen. But the point is: This crisis will leave changes that are irreversible.
Finding a Plan B and C for an industry whose crucial value depends on bringing people from A to B in times when neither the people nor the places are economically and physically healthy, cannot simply be solved by some smart App that 16-year old hackers develop in their garage. It will take the efforts of really smart and well-experienced people from many disciplines to come up with creative ideas that are not just quick fixes but truly turn the crisis into a chance.
I am not claiming that I have those answers. I am actually one of those smart asses who only contribute value to people and to society by sharing my thoughts and expressing ideas by writing stories. That might not be much. But it is something. And to me personally, it is something that creates value and pleasure. I think, if governments invest a lot of money into the education system and they pass it on to universities who educate people like me to earn all kinds of academic degrees, it is legitimate to share some brain that resulted from this. Return on investment is what business people might call this — I guess.
Since I am not an airline expert but simply a customer and a flight romantic, I can only contribute ideas and critical reflections based on my own subjective perspective. What that includes, I cannot even say because it is quite complicated. Let me just simply summarize it by saying that I combine different perspectives in my head and I cannot strictly separate where exactly this or that thought comes from. What I know is that close to 100% of my thoughts would not exist without planes in the air.
This example of my own life gives me a good starting point for explaining three ideas in a little more detail. After all, my own life emphasizes how much value flying creates. It cannot be measured quantitatively or assessed based on some objective catalogue of criteria. When I claim flying has shaped my life, nobody can challenge or doubt that. It is my personal assessment. And since we live in a country where people can at least still determine which life story they want to tell themselves, nobody can take this narrative away from me.
And maybe narrative is the best summary to explain where my solutions come from. I think, flying is a catalyst that makes people experience the most life-changing stories of their lives. And when I say this, I am exactly not referring to the kinds of experiences you see on big posters with people climbing the Himalaya or checking in at some Five Star Hotel. I mean the experiences that happen to you while you travel because you simply want or have to go from A to B, without any touristy adventure ahead or some other movie-like reason.
This non-touristy travel from my perspective particularly applies to three groups of passengers that we either do not think much about these days or we think about them in a very derogatory manner. The latter particularly applies to business passengers. They are very much on the agenda of the airlines because they are the most important passengers. But to the general public, they might be the first to be left on the ground because they have this image of not deserving the money they earn, especially not in times when airlines benefit from financial rescue packages from the government.
Concerning the two other groups that I want to talk about, scholars and students, nobody has them on the radar because they are not rich and supposedly not ‘systems-relevant’ for the economy. I argue that flying creates value for all of these groups in a way that neither society nor the airlines themselves might be aware of. And if you ask me, the future of the airline industry relies on studying the exact value air travel creates for these and more groups to then create this value with alternative solutions. This is the core expertise of airlines. Let me explain what I mean.
People with my background in the humanities hardly ever understand why I am so much into business. For me, for a long time, this was a puzzle as well. Except for my entrepreneurial spirit and my creativity, I have no idea about business, i.e., the numbers stuff, market figures, etc. Bit by bit, as I came to understand myself better, I also understood what fascinates me about business: the people.
Business people are much more like me in many ways — not in all ways. And since human beings enjoy being surrounded by people that are somehow like them, this makes perfect sense. How it happened that I am so little like folks in the humanities or in higher education at large is easy to answer: travel. At least, travel is a huge part of the story. But there are more things. When I say “business people” I mostly mean managers. Of course, this is a simplification but most people you meet on planes and at airports have some sort of management responsibility.
Now, what the folks with my background usually think managers are like is a story of its own and it does not make any sense to get into this here. What I mean by “managers” are people who get things done in organizations and who are fascinating to talk to. This is because managers usually have a personality that is on the generalist side: They are interested in many things and can juggle many balls in the air. This actually fuels their energy. They like when things are happening, this kind of positive stress that excels your personal learning curve.
By now, I have even come to ‘identify’ people based on three simple questions. 1) Do/did you (ever) play sports? 2) Do you travel? 3) Do you read? If the answer is no to any of these, people are usually not my type — sorry to say this. But I have experimented a lot and there was always a point when the conversation abruptly ended if one of these criteria was not met, even if there was a good entry point for the relationship at first.
Of course, I need to explain a little more about these questions and why I put them into the order above. The issue of sports comes first because sports are usually things that accompany our lives from early childhood onwards. And it is hardly the case that we change our sports preferences completely. There are millions of studies on how sports relate to personality. But I want to keep it very basic. When I ask people the question about sports, a “yes” is the most important thing. I do draw conclusions from the types of sports people tell me about but in general, someone who was and still is into sports brings certain things to the table that match with me.
The next issue, travel, comes second because of age. Even though we might have started traveling with our parents when we were young, conscious travel based on our own choice making usually starts a bit later in life. And here, it is not so important if you really start early. For me, the most important thing about this is that you do it consciously and you value it in and of itself. I can almost sense this when asking the question. It is not about quantity but quality and diversity. Sometimes when people say “yes” and tell me where they go all the time but without any spark in their eyes, I know they are only talking about the mere mobility part of it. They hardly suck in the experience to grow personally. Still, I would say you can hardly separate the one from the other.
The third question, reading, might sound super intellectual but I again mean it in a very pragmatic way. People who read are somehow curious to find answers that you do not encounter anywhere else because they are simply thrown at you by the media or some marketing bulletin. And there is another very basic thing about reading books: You do it alone. That to me is very important. Someone who is able to concentrate on a book and enjoys it is someone who does not constantly need some social bravado and affirmation by others. And I am putting this issue last in the order because the figures show us that the heaviest readers tend to be found in the 40 plus generation. And I am confident that this will actually remain so, even if the very young generation is not reading — yet.
Based on these three questions, you already see how tightly all three aspects are connected. People who want to climb mountains fly to countries where there are mountains. People who want to go surfing fly to seaside destinations. Really banal, right? Well, not quite, because I am dealing with these aspects in my section on business travelers for a reason. This is also why reading indeed is important for business people. Managers do read on planes. This is where they have time if they do not work. And working in the air is actually also something that has value for a simple reason that connects it with reading: You are left in peace.
Why am I drawing such a big circle here to write about business travel? Where are all the facts and figures about business travel and customer satisfaction? As I mentioned before, I have no idea about these data, only a vague assumption that is based on common sense. But I know that for great business management, you need a bit more reliable statistics. I can only offer my insights on the value that I see for business people and I partly already touched on this. Here is the summary of my results on a very subjective and even emotional empirical observation basis:
1) Peace: Working without disturbance in the air -> more efficiency
2) Conversation: Having truly inspiring conversations with people outside the work place that happen to sit near you -> inspiration and creativity
3) Reading time: Reading leads to intellectual growth and big picture thinking, as well as empathy -> problem-solving potential
4) Status: Yes, this might sound just like an ego thing but I see it as a tool of appreciation when you have the privilege to fly business or first class and be treated accordingly -> self-esteem and value
5) Adventure: Every journey is an adventure, especially if the meeting ahead is decisive -> emotional arousal
Are you missing something like “intercultural competence” on the list? I will get to that at the very end because it is not unique about this target group. What I can say, however, on a personal note, is in fact that the most inspiring individuals I ever talked to on planes were business people. And, of course, there is a bias in this because I might have attracted the conversation simply because I saw they were business travelers. But that does not change the experience and the value I derived from it.
And it is definitely not true that I always pushed the first contact because of some business topic. Most conversations I ever had on plane with fellow business travelers started out based on books. Either I was reading a book and people asked me about it or I saw someone reading it and I asked. In either case, this is how the book reading part really is linked to the business trip section. And this automatically erases some other stereotype about managers as supposedly ill-reflected and intellectually backward pricks. Sure, this species might exist. But do you not also know some intellectually sophisticated dumb heads that never reflect? For sure, we all need to work on the stereotypes in our heads. Covid is a good time to start with this, I think.
Read Part II tomorrow — Merry Christmas!
1) What does flying mean to you?
2) Do you have any particular habits when on a plane?
How do you think about the fact that governments are helping airlines in the Covid crisis while other industries (e.g., arts, event industry) are fighting for more support — in Germany?