Folk Heroes In Turbulent Times

The folk hero of the moment is Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who cursed out a passenger, grabbed a couple of beers and made a dramatic entrance down the plane’s emergency chute.

Slater’s fifteen minutes of fame temporarily catapult him into a long line of folk heroes such as Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd and D.B. Cooper, outlaws celebrated by “the people” “for sticking it to the man.”

Reviewing “Freedom” in today’s New York Times, the new novel by Jonathan Franzen, Michiko Kakutani describes “the absurdities of contemporary life…where the planet is “heating up like a toaster oven”… where rage among liberals and conservatives alike is scorching the country…and intemperate blog entries and Howard Beale-like outbursts are cheered as expressions of a collective distemper.”

An overheated toaster oven. What a great way to think of an airplane in the early 21st Century.

I speak from experience.  I’m on planes several times a month.  A slave to my frequent flier program, I shun non-stop flights on competing airlines to make sure I maintain my status and pile up the points.  Lots of switching planes at DFW and O’Hare.  Which means that there are months when I’ll fly as many as fifteen segments.  You’ll find me crammed into coach most of the time, but sometimes I’m lucky enough clear the upgrade list and move into first class.

Air travel is an apt metaphor for the “absurdities of contemporary life.” The repressed rage on these flights is palpable – mine and everyone else’s.  The only mystery here is why this type of incident took so long to surface.

There are times, on my sixth flight of the week, after working three or four straight 14 hour days, where I’ll find myself in the middle seat, crammed between the two biggest men on the plane. Our shoulders are all wider than the seats.  The fact that there is not enough space in front of me to open my computer is a minor inconvenience compared with the four hour wrestling match with my seatmates for the armrests and a chance to sit in a natural, relaxed position.

(Why is it that I’m never seated next to the 5’1”, 105-pound mom with her well behaved five year old?  Why is it always me and the two ex-linebackers?)

The offer to by a can of potato chips or a chocolate chip cookie for $5 doesn’t really ease the pain.

We take so much for granted.  I suppose that the opportunity to travel thousands of miles for just a few hundred dollars would be a good thing.  Better than traveling for days by car or stagecoach.  But our expectations have been raised to what are proving to be unsustainable levels. In the skies and in life.

The future is not bright at the moment, but we all remember better times.  We walked through the Internet boom and the prosperity it brought for most of the nation to get to this point in time. Just like we have to walk through first class to get to coach.

Having had a taste of the good life before the Great Recession took it all away, we still feel entitled to it.  And aren’t we envious when we see the fat cats sitting in first class sipping cocktails as we make our way to the back of the bus. It was all a big tease, and now they’re rubbing salt in the wound.

For now, we take out our frustration on those who are easiest to blame, namely, the politicians. Or the flight attendants, who are for the most part, well intentioned, decent, over-worked and underpaid people trying to make a living.

But when passengers look at the flight attendant, they don’t see a human being.  They see the Airline. “The Man.” Like the politicians, the airlines promise pie in the sky but only deliver salty snacks a steep price, devoid of any real substance or sustenance.

The airlines have it all wrong, don’t they?  Planes should be boarded from the tail or first class should be moved to the back of the plane.  Strolling through the cheap seats, first class passengers can congratulate themselves on being successful enough to live a better life and having earned the right to a bigger seat, free drinks, something to eat and a bit of attention.  The masses in coach won’t know what they’re missing, but can at least dream of a better life through the curtain in the cabin ahead.

Context is everything in marketing and communications. Marketers so often focus narrowly on the features and rational benefits of their products.  But it’s not just about getting from there to there, is it? It’s how we feel about ourselves in the process.  It may not be as easy as boarding from the back of the plane, but it’s a good start.

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