Fly Air Gini

by Kieran Healy on December 1, 2014

The other day at OrgTheory, Beth Berman had a very nice discussion on “inequality in the skies” about how much of space on planes is given over to different classes of passenger. Using seating charts, she calculated some rough Gini coefficients of inequality on board. For example, on a transatlantic flight in a three-class configuration with fancy lie-flat beds up front,


if we look again at how the space is distributed, we now have 21% of the people using about 40% of the plane, 27% using another 20%, and the final 52% using the last 40%. The Gini index has now increased, to 25.

She also noted in passing that, as unequal as that is, it’s “still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world.” I found myself wondering what a plane with seating laid out on the basis of the U.S. income distribution would look like. So, following Beth’s lead, I decided to get into the aviation business and launch Air Gini, America’s most American airline.

To begin, for context, here’s a regular old Airbus A330-300 in a three class configuration often seen on international flights. It has First, Business, and Economy Class cabins.

A Regular Airline's Three Class System.



A Regular Airline's Three Class System.


A plane with this layout carries two hundred and twenty seven passengers. There are one hundred and seventy seven lucky duckies in Economy, forty two in Business, and eight in First Class. As Beth did, we can see that the seventy eight percent of passengers in Economy get about fifty eight percent of the seating space on the plane. Business Class passengers get just over thirty one percent of the room, and First Class passengers get about eleven percent of the space. Perhaps you’ve flown Economy on a flight like this. As you boarded, maybe you walked past the Business Class seats, and you might also have caught a quick glimpse of the First Class seats way up front. So you have a sense of how much space different passengers have.

How does Air Gini improve on this arrangement? Those eight First Class passengers are about three and a half percent of the plane’s population; the Business Class group is eighteen and a half percent; and the remaining seventy eight percent of this little society are in Economy. So, what if the space on the plane was allocated in proportion to the share of total income earned by each class? With a bit of help from the Census Bureau, Emmanuel Saez, and the Federal Aviation Authority, Air Gini is proud to bring you the future of air travel:

Air Gini: We Like to Fly the Way You Like to Live.



Air Gini: We Like to Fly the Way You Like to Live.


In Air Gini’s three-class layout, some things look familiar and some things are a bit different. Economy Class makes up just under eighty percent of the passengers. Passengers seated there correspond to everyone who makes less than about $97,000 a year. Their share of total income in the US is just below fifty percent, and thus so is their share of the seating space. On the regular airline it was about fifty eight percent, so for these working stiffs the new arrangement is even more cramped than on our ordinary international flight. Economy Class passengers on Air Gini should expect less overhead bin space and more passive-aggressive interactions with the guy in front of them who insists on reclining his seat.

Up with the managers, meanwhile, things have become more compressed, too. Business Class travelers are just over eighteen percent of passengers, but now they get only fifteen percent of the space. That’s obviously still much better than Economy class, but it’s down from the thirty percent or so they had in the original plane. These fliers are almost all in the top quintile: in real-life terms, they correspond to everyone from just below the 80th percentile of the US income distribution up to just above the 96th percentile. Roughly, that’s households making between $97,000 and $280,000 a year. Yet many of them feel a little angry about how little space they have. Strange though it seems, some of those in the seats closest to the front of their section even feel somewhat poor—at least by comparison to those a bit further up the plane. Air Gini understands their situation and compensates them with a complimentary in-flight snack.

What has happened to make Business Class more cramped? The answer is to be found in Ruling Class. Sorry, I mean, First Class. On Air Gini, those eight most-valued passengers—three and a half percent of those on board—get thirty five percent of the available seating space. That’s a lot of legroom. So much, in fact, that as First Class passengers have spread out to take up the first third of the plane, Air Gini has been forced to replace the luxurious Business Class seats in the real-life configuration with still-comfortable but noticeably smaller chairs.

Not to worry, though. Air Gini’s eight First Class passengers can really enjoy themselves, which is the important thing. And yet, even here at the head of the aircraft, Air Gini’s layout hints that inequality may extend all the way up to the flight deck. Two of the first class seats are close to the front of Business Class, and behind a bulkhead. Awkward. Those passengers make about $300,000 a year. The passenger in the very front row, meanwhile, makes a hell of a lot more than that and has even more room to relax in than his peers. All things considered, you have to wonder exactly who is flying this plane—and more importantly, perhaps, who owns it.

{ 36 comments }

1

Chris Edmond 12.01.14 at 7:42 pm

This is Air Income Gini, don’t forget its code share partner Air Wealth Gini.

2

mpowell 12.01.14 at 7:51 pm

I’m a little bit confused about your data. pg 17 of the census bureau has a chart of income by quintile and top 5%. The top 5% get 22% and the remainder of the top quintile gets 29%. The rest share 49%. You have the top 3.5% earning 35% and the next 18% earning 15%? That is a pretty substantial disagreement.

3

Omega Centauri 12.01.14 at 7:55 pm

And I presume ruling class gets at least one “trophy” stewardess per capita?

4

Trader Joe 12.01.14 at 8:07 pm

The story is actually better when you also factor in what the different classes pay for their tickets…you find that its the business class passengers (i.e. upper middle class) that get screwed the most.

In general (obviously there are dozens of factors at work)….on a NY to Euro-capital route you can pick up a first class seat for around $10,000, a business class seat is around $5,000 and an economy class seat is usually around $1,000.

Using those as a rough guide, a sold out first class section brings in $80,000 (8 @10), a sold out business class brings in $210,000 (42 @5) and a sold out economy cabin brings in $177,000 (177 @1,000)….in that context the first class has paid 17% of total revenues for about 40% of the plane, the business class has paid 45% of total revenues for 20% of the plane and economy pays 37% for 40% of the plane….this (remarkably) seems vaguely reminiscent of the allocations of tax dollars paid as a proportion of total goverment revenues – not perfectly of course, but surprisingly closer than expected.

5

Jeff W 12.01.14 at 8:26 pm

FWIW, premium classes never sell out. They have lots of passengers who have upgraded with frequent-flyer miles.

6

Rakesh 12.01.14 at 8:31 pm

Neat! I guess it works because ultimately we’re all headed to the same place.

7

Rakesh 12.01.14 at 8:32 pm

but we’re not getting there at the same time.

8

Rakesh 12.01.14 at 8:47 pm

The good thing, though, is that the passengers are spending their income on lavish vacations rather than investing in inequality-accentuating schools for their kids.

9

J. Parnell Thomas 12.01.14 at 9:05 pm

I’ll point out that people with more money are likely to fly more often. What the hell.

10

Bernard Yomtov 12.01.14 at 9:53 pm

Jeff W.,

Who are these miracle-working upgraders?

Those upgrades are first of all very hard to get, and usually require payment of an “upgradeable” fare, which is much higher than regular coach class fares – often by a factor of two or three.

I’ve actually been quoted upgradeable fares higher than business class fares.

11

TM 12.01.14 at 9:56 pm

12

J Thomas 12.01.14 at 9:57 pm

I’ll point out that people with more money are likely to fly more often. What the hell.

Yes. Economy class can be smaller because at any given time a lot of the passengers aren’t even on the plane.

13

Jacques Distler 12.01.14 at 10:13 pm

The analogy almost works. Except … the Ruling Class isn’t even on the same plane. They’re flying on their private jet.

14

Shatterface 12.01.14 at 10:27 pm

James Cameron’s Titanic did this better, plus the ship sank (spoilers) so it offers a metaphor for where we are going as well as we’re we are.

15

David Brake 12.01.14 at 11:59 pm

Worth pointing out that Air Wealth GINI would be even more stratified! And if someone were willing to do the math and drawing it would be also worth drawing up the same airplane only as designed in, say, Canada.

16

P O'Neill 12.02.14 at 2:12 am

Besides being brilliant, this doesn’t actually explain why the only airlines that come close to this configuration are state owned airlines with opaque finances: Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

17

Bruce Wilder 12.02.14 at 2:14 am

It seems to me in real life, the 1/10th of 1% would be on their own plane, flying into their own airport.

18

Palindrome 12.02.14 at 4:51 am

Needs an addendum for those of us whose budgets only extend as far as the Chinatown bus. Or hitchhiking.

19

js. 12.02.14 at 5:51 am

Fantastic! When they pack off all the proles to GiniJet, the theme song can be set to “Janie Jones”!

But seriously, this is great.

20

dsquared 12.02.14 at 8:29 am

Is there something that could be done with the tax revenue data to calculate the fares?

21

Tim Worstall 12.02.14 at 9:33 am

Is Air Gini working with market income shares, post tax income shares or post tax and post benefit income shares?

Makes quite a difference. From the first to last of those the US gini moves by 11 or 12 points (high 40s to high 30s).

22

Sasha Clarkson 12.02.14 at 10:29 am

I liked the cartoon TM @11 :)

It strikes me Kieran, that although first class looks rather empty, there would need to be provision for extra servants and sycophants: unless business class were required to serve first class, with or without livery, and economy passengers serve business class and clean the lavatories?

23

Layman 12.02.14 at 12:03 pm

J Thomas @ 12 wins the internets!

24

Paul Davis 12.02.14 at 12:35 pm

Trader Joe @4: actually your comparison with taxation is apt in another way. An important to ask when discussing taxation/ticket price is what the expected benefit of paying the tax/ticket price will be. It is reasonably likely that a significant part of first/upper/business-plus class is travelling to try to gain substantive economic benefits from their journey (e.g. business deals, political stuff, etc), whereas economy is full of either wage slaves or tourists. Economy might pay “only” 37% of the revenue in order to “get” 40% of the plane, but who is actually going to benefit the most (financially) from the flight?

25

Barry 12.02.14 at 4:05 pm

“It is reasonably likely that a significant part of first/upper/business-plus class is travelling to try to gain substantive economic benefits from their journey (e.g. business deals, political stuff, etc),,,,”

It’s more likely that those seats are paid for by corporations.

26

Salem 12.02.14 at 4:53 pm

But will the seats recline?

27

Eric Titus 12.02.14 at 5:14 pm

I hate to nit-pick, but this isn’t an accurate comparison of gini coefficients.
I’m just pointing this out because this happens a lot when people apply ginis to new areas! Basically, a gini coefficient should be a curved line, but when you break people up in this way you are generating flat “blocks” (d”(x)=0). Low granularity of data will lead you to underestimate gini coefficients.

28

The Temporary Name 12.02.14 at 9:13 pm

I hate to nit-pick

My internet is not working properly and I keep getting these nonsense phrases.

29

cassander 12.03.14 at 3:40 am

left out, of course, is any mention of what share of the total cost of the flight was paid for by those first class passengers, i.e. how much they produced.

30

J Thomas 12.03.14 at 9:32 am

#29 cassander

left out, of course, is any mention of what share of the total cost of the flight was paid for by those first class passengers, i.e. how much they produced.

That’s a tremendous jump you just made there.

Let’s say you are a nuclear physicist, you were following up some leads that would have led to a unified theory of everything during your last post-doc, but you didn’t quite get there when it turned out there weren’t enough jobs for nuclear physicists and so last year you made $50,000 as a taxi-driver.

And let’s say that last year my income was $5,000,000 interest on tax-exempt government bonds.

Which of us produced more? What does that have to do with which of us paid more for our seat?

31

Paul Davis 12.03.14 at 12:22 pm

@cassander #29: Trader Joe computed that in #4:

in that context the first class has paid 17% of total revenues for about 40% of the plane, the business class has paid 45% of total revenues for 20% of the plane and economy pays 37% for 40% of the plane

and it has been discussed subsequently.

32

Christiaan Hofman 12.03.14 at 12:45 pm

I think you forgot the people in the back who don’t even have enough room to stand.

33

cassander 12.03.14 at 5:26 pm

@Jthomas

for the physicist, since he didn’t actually come up with a unified theory, I’d say he shouldn’t get credit for what he might of done. As for you living large on municipal bonds, they yield about 2 percent, so what did you make or sell to get the 250 million in cash needed to buy those bonds in the first place?

34

J Thomas 12.03.14 at 5:40 pm

#33 cassander

for the physicist, since he didn’t actually come up with a unified theory, I’d say he shouldn’t get credit for what he might of done.

Agreed. The physicist doesn’t deserve credit for the work he did not get sufficient opportunity to do.

As for you living large on municipal bonds, they yield about 2 percent, so what did you make or sell to get the 250 million in cash needed to buy those bonds in the first place?

Hey, you pointed out that I paid for the ticket, and it sounded like you were saying that was production enough.

So let’s say I inherited it.

35

Robespierre 12.04.14 at 12:35 pm

Actually, the picture still looks pretty good compared to an actual Air Gini, both because it overlooks the concentration at the very top (the top 3 passengers should have some 17% of the space) and because it treats all economy class passengers as equal, where the poorest 30 passengers would have 1.8% of the space – and 5-6 seats between them.

36

J Thomas 12.04.14 at 12:48 pm

it treats all economy class passengers as equal, where the poorest 30 passengers would have 1.8% of the space – and 5-6 seats between them.

Airliners don’t have steerage. Maybe the poorest passengers could fly in the cargo area with the pets?

Comments on this entry are closed.