Tag Archives: travel/tourism

Inequality in the Skies: Applying the Gini Index to Airplanes

I’m on a plane right now, flying from Sacramento back to Albany. And sitting here I’m reminded of how air travel itself reflects the growing inequality of society in a trivial, but suggestive, way.

Planes have always had first-class and passenger cabins, at least as far as I know. If the Titanic had this distinction, I’m guessing it was in place from the beginning of commercial aviation.

But for most of my adult life, planes — at least the ones I usually fly on, from one U.S. city to another — looked something like this:

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Just roughing it out here, this means that 7% of the passengers used about 15% of the room, with the other 93% using 85% of the cabin space. Such a plane would have a Gini index of about 8. The Gini index is measure of inequality, a fancy statistical way of representing inequality in the income distribution of a country’s population. For reference, the U.S. Gini is about 48, and the global one is around 65.

Domestic airlines have pretty much moved to a three-tier system now, in which the traditional first-class seating is supplemented by “Economy Plus,” in which you get an extra three or four inches of legroom over the standard “Economy” seats. I, as usual, am crammed into what should really be called “Sardine Class” — where seats now commonly provide a pitch of 31”, a few inches down from what most planes had a decade ago.

In today’s standard U.S. domestic configuration, the 12% of people in first class use about 25% of the passenger space, the 51 people in Economy Plus use another 30%, leaving the sardines — the other 157 people — with 45%. That gives us a Gini index of about 16.

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Transatlantic flights, however, are increasingly taking this in-the-air distinction to new heights. Take, for example, the below United configuration of the Boeing 777. It boasts seats that turn into beds on which one can lie fully horizontal. United calls this new section of bed-seats “BusinessFirst.”

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Unsurprisingly, though, these air-beds take up even more space than a nice comfy first class seat. So if we look again at how the space is distributed, we now have 19% of the people using about 35% of the plane, 27% using another 25%, and the final 52% using the last 40%. The Gini index has now increased to 25.

It’s not often you see such a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources. I wonder how much of the shift is actually driven by increased inequality, as opposed to improved capacity for price discrimination.

And it’s also worth noting that the plane above, while unequal relative to the old-fashioned three-rows-of-first-class-and-the-rest-economy layout, is still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world.

Elizabeth Popp Berman, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany.  She is the author of Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine and regularly blogs at OrgTheory, where this post originally appeared.

“Rental Dreads”: Female Sex Tourists in the Caribbean

Flashback Friday.

While preparing a lecture on sex tourism, I ran across this video about men who have sex with female tourists in the Caribbean:

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on there, no? I was fascinated by the female hotel owner who talks about the men “preying” on the female tourists, clearly placing the power in the hands the men who, she argues, use the female tourists for money but don’t really care about them. I tried to imagine someone talking similarly about female sex workers “preying” on foreign men’s need for affection and attention.

This might make for a great discussion about perceptions of sexual agency: how do gendered sexual norms, economic differences, and the different races and nationalities of the individuals involved affect how we think of their interactions and who we see as the victim?

In her chapter on sex tourism in Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality), sociologist Joane Nagel discusses the role of racialized sexualities in making some groups attractive tourists looking for an ethnosexual adventure. In the Caribbean, dark-skinned men with dreads are particularly attractive to some female tourists because of stereotypes of Black men as extremely sexual and masculine, which plays into fantasies of being swept away by a strong, skilled lover. At the same time, White Western women may represent the possibility of a better life (through continued gifts of money even after the vacation is over) and sexualized adventures to the men they sleep with while on vacation. Nagel argues that these encounters generally reinforce, rather than challenge, existing racial and gender inequalities, since they play on stereotypes of sexualized Others as animalistic, primitive, and, in the case of men, as super-masculine (and super-endowed).

Then again, Nagel also questions whether any relationship between tourists and “local” men should count as sex work. The individuals involved don’t necessarily think of their interactions in those terms. And who is to decide if a particular situation is “sex tourism” as opposed to a “real” relationship? How does that assumption invalidate the possibility that Black men and White women might have real, meaningful relationships? Or primarily sexual relationships, but with both partners respecting the other?

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Saturday Stat: The Average Prisoner is Visited Only Twice

Prisoners who can maintain ties to people on the outside tend to do better — both while they’re incarcerated and after they’re released. A new Crime and Delinquency article by Joshua Cochran, Daniel Mears, and William Bales, however, shows relatively low rates of visitation.

The study was based on a cohort of prisoners admitted into and released from Florida prisons from November 2000 to April 2002. On average, inmates only received 2.1 visits over the course of their entire incarceration period. Who got visitors? As the figure below shows, prisoners who are younger, white or Latino, and had been incarcerated less frequently tend to have more visits. Community factors also shaped visitation patterns: prisoners who come from high incarceration areas or communities with greater charitable activity also received more visits.  

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There are some pretty big barriers to improving visitation rates, including: (1) distance (most inmates are housed more than 100 miles from home); (2) lack of transportation; (3) costs associated with missed work; and, (4) child care. While these are difficult obstacles to overcome, the authors conclude that corrections systems can take steps to reduce these barriers, such as housing inmates closer to their homes, making facilities and visiting hours more child-friendly, and reaching out to prisoners’ families regarding the importance of visitation, both before and during incarceration.

Cross-posted at Public Criminology.

Chris Uggen is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the author of  Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, with Jeff Manza. You can follow him at his blog and on twitter.

Saturday Stat: New Orleans Weathers the Great Recession

Partly because the city had just begun to recovery from Hurricane Katrina when the Great Recession began, it suffered less job loss relative to its pre-recession state and GDP actually grew 3.9% between 2008 and 2011. No other southern metropolitan area cracked 2% in the same period.

Charles Davidson, writing for EconSouth, offers the following evidence of New Orleans’ resilience in the face of the Great Recession. Chart 1 shows that it lost a smaller percentage of its jobs than the U.S. as a whole.

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This is even more significant as it looks, as New Orleans had been in economic decline for decades before Katrina.  Davidson reports that “the economy in New Orleans has reversed decades of decline and outperformed the nation and other southern metropolitan areas.  Consider: the job growth in New Orleans shown in Chart 2 may not look impressive, but compare it to the extraordinary declines of its neighbors.

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Thanks to greater diversification of its economy, record tourism, and rising investment money, the city may be setting itself up for a revival.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

“Tourist, Shame on You”: On Disaster Tourism

Flashback Friday.

When tourists returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was a new site to see: disaster.  Suddenly — in addition to going on a Ghost Tour, visiting the Backstreet Cultural Museum, and lunching at Dooky Chase’s — one could see the devastation heaped upon the Lower Ninth Ward.  Buses full of strangers with cameras were rumbling through the neighborhood as it tried to get back on its feet.

A sociology major at  Michigan State University, Kiara C., sent along this photograph of a homemade sign propped up in the Lower Ninth, shaming visitors for what sociologists call “disaster tourism.”

(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com; found here)

Disaster tourism is criticized for objectifying the suffering of others.  Imagine having lost loved ones and seen your house nearly destroyed. After a year out of town, you’re in your nastiest clothes, mucking sludge out of your house, fearful that the money will run out before you can get the house — the house your grandmother bought and passed down to you through your mother — put back together.

Imagine that — as you push a wheelbarrow out into the sunlight, blink as you adjust to the brightness, and push your hair off your forehead, leaving a smudge of toxic mud — a bus full of cameras flash at you, taking photographs of your trauma, effort, and fear.  And then they take that photo back to their cozy, dry home and show it to their friends, who ooh and aah about how cool it was that they got to see the aftermath of the flood.

The person who made this sign… this is what they may have been feeling.

Originally posted in 2011.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Mother, Sex Object, Worker: The Transformation of the Female Flight Attendant

While the first flight attendants were male and many early airlines had a ban on hiring women, flight attending would eventually become a quintessentially female occupation.  Airline marketers exploited the presence of these female flight attendants.  Based on my reading — especially Phil Tiemeyer‘s Plane Queer and Kathleen Barry’s history of flight attendants’ labor activism – there seem to have been three stages.

First, there was the domestication of the cabin.  As air travel became more comfortable (e.g., pressurized cabins and quieter rides), airlines were looking to increase their customer base.  Female “stewardesses” in the ’40s and ’50s were an opportunity to argue that an airplane was just like a comfortable living room, equally safe for women, children, and men alike.  Marketing at the time presented the flight attendant as if she were a mother or wife:

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Twenty years later, air travel was no longer scary, so airlines switched their tactics. They sexualized their flight attendants in order to appeal to businessmen, who still made up a majority of their customers. Here’s a ten-second Southwest commercial touting the fact that their stewardesses wear “hot pants”:

The intersection of the labor movement and women’s liberation in the ’60s and ’70s inspired women to fight for workplace rights. Flight attendants were among the first female workers to organize on behalf of their occupation and among the most successful to do so.  Their work won both practical and symbolic victories, like the discursive move from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” that transformed women in the occupation from sex objects to workers.  A quick Google Image search shows that the association — stewardess/sex object vs. flight attendant/worker — still applies. Notice that the search for “stewardess” includes more sexualized images, while the one for “flight attendant” shows more images of people actually working.

“Stewardess”:

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“Flight attendant”:Screenshot_2My impression is that today’s marketing tends to feature flight attendants in all three roles — domestic, sex object, worker — echoing each stage of the transformation of the occupation in the public imagination.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post, Pacific Standard, and Work in Progress.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Surprise! Your Flight Attendants are All Strangers

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Flight attendants are not only friendly with their passengers, they’re also often super friendly with each other.  This may be because especially gregarious people go into the profession, but it’s also an adaptation to a surprising structural feature of their job. It turns out that, on any given flight anywhere in the world, most flight attendants are meeting their co-workers for the very first time.

There are about 100,000 flight attendants in the U.S. alone and they get their flights through a process of bidding, one month at a time, one month ahead.  Most really do “see the world,” as the old glamorized image of the intrepid stewardess suggests, instead of working the same route over and over again.  As a result, explains Drew Whitelegg in Working the Skies, they rarely run into the same flight attendant twice.

This means that flight attendants must get to know one another quickly once they get on board.  They need to do so to make food and beverage service efficient, to coordinate their actions in the tight galleys in which they work and, most importantly, so that they will trust one another if they are called upon to do what they are really there for: acting in an emergency, one that could theoretically happen within seconds of take-off.  There’s no time to lose. “[F]rom the moment they board the plane,” writes Whitelegg, “these workers — even if complete strangers — begin constructing bonds.”

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Image credit: National Library of Australia

 

Their instant bonding is facilitated by their shared experiences and their “peculiar identity,” Whitelegg explains — few people understand their job and the airline industry deliberately misportays it – and also by a culture of confession.  The galley has its own rules to which new flight attendants are socialized.  So, even though the workers are always new, the workplace is predictable.  Whitlegg describes how galley conversations during downtime tend to be extremely, sometimes excruciatingly personal.  “The things you hear,” laughs Clare, a flight attendant for Continental, “I could write a book. The things you hear at 30,000 feet.”  It’s the odd combination of a habit of bonding and the anonymity of strangers.

So, if you have the pleasure of taking a flight, spend a few minutes watching the surprising coordination of strangers who seem like old friends, and take a moment to appreciate the amazing way these workers have adapted to their very peculiar position.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post, Pacific Standard, and Work in Progress.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

African-American Travel and Jim Crow Segregation

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

I have driven across the United States several different times.  I always enjoy the experience.  It reminds me of just how vast and diverse this country really is, in terms of both its nature and culture.  Catching up with a friend after such a trip, I discovered that he’d never driven across the country and I insisted that he absolutely must.  “Lisa,” he said intensely, lowering his head, “not everyone is welcome in every small town in America.”  My friend, you might guess, was Black.

It was a memorable lesson about my own white privilege.

This was in the 2000s, but I couldn’t help but think of it when I learned about the Green Book. A story on NPR about the book starts with the following summary:

In part, the Jim Crow era could be defined by the places African-Americans could go and the places they couldn’t. In the towns and cities where they lived, of course, blacks knew where they were welcome. On the road, though, who knew which restaurants and hotels, beauty shops and night clubs would slam doors in their faces?

The answer was “The Negro Motorist Green Book.”  First published in 1936, and revised and re-published for almost 30 years, it helped Black people travel across a hostile America.

Green wasn’t just the color.  It was named after the book’s author — Victor Green — who was a postal worker.  Most African Americans were familiar with where they could and couldn’t go in their own cities.  So Green used his connections through the post office to collect lists from all over America, and even some other countries.  These lists were invaluable to Black travelers.

Even in the depth of Jim Crow, however, Green dreamed of a better time. In the introduction he wrote (source):

There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.

His dream, I suppose, sort of did and sort of didn’t come true.  The Green Book is out-of-print.  Yet men and women like my friend still have good reason to feel uncomfortable showing their face in unfamiliar places.

Book covers borrowed from Electronic Village, AutoLife, and Phoenix Magazine.  You can see a complete pdf of the book here.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.