The Way We Fly, The Way We Work

If you draw the comparison from the mid-twentieth century, the similarities and differences in how we work in both airplanes and offices become clear.

I recently heard about a new book by industrial designer Jonathan Olivares called A Taxonomy of Office Chairs. I was very excited about it and immediately Amazoned a copy.


You might think this could be shaping up as one of the most hellaciously boring blog posts ever written. But please read on. First, Olivares is not just a designer, he is (including his team) an extreme designer, who, in this tome, has composed quite a comprehensive and academic work. As The New York Times reports, “Taxonomy” takes a “zoological approach” to that which we take for granted in our lives. Second, Olivares compellingly documents the evolution of an inherently boring object–the lowly but essential office chair. As you peruse the pages, you nod knowingly as you recognize images of specimens you have perched upon, reclined in, loved.

Olivares’s introduction outlines a short history of the rise of the meek chair, and how this staple has evolved from the mid-1800s to today. The author points out that not only did the office chair become defined by changing work habits and environments, but by who we are in the “chair hierarchy.” Interestingly, office chairs rose and fell sporadically in price as materials and technology matured, as new mechanical features became available, and as organizations finally became aware of the implication of ergonomics on productivity.

Yes, I’m leading up to a business travel analogy. The parallel of the Olivares story of chair evolution to how we’ve evolved as road warriors is obvious. The distinction is that today our chairs are significantly more expensive and uncomfortable–because they fly.

If you draw the comparison from the mid-twentieth century, the similarities and differences in how we work in both airplanes and offices become clearer. For example, many modern offices and some first-class cabins offer a place to shower and change clothes, as we work ever longer hours. Is it any surprise that the centerpiece of life in twenty-first century, Internet connectivity, has enjoyed such rapid adoption by air travelers wherever onboard Wi-Fi is available? Or that expectations and interactions in both offices and airports/aircraft have become decidedly more self-service and DIY in nature and practice?

As for the differences, they make for an even more fascinating commentary on who we are and what we’re doing. Today there are far fewer of us working at individual companies–workplaces where automation and headcount reductions have become the norm. Yet there are way more of us occupying those middle seats on business flights. While cigarette smoking has been banned in both airplanes and offices, one is unlikely to witness a cacophony of shrieking, hysterical kiddies terrorizing the offices of today. One could make the argument that over the past half century the pace of corporate culture in a typical workplace has accelerated greatly, while the cultural speed of passenger flights–especially when it comes to accommodating the needs of business travelers–has stayed very much the same.

For those of us who make aircraft our desk, the single biggest change to these benches on the bus is their pure proliferation. Yet business travelers have changed as much as everything else. The hardened, road-wizened, sharply dressed wheeler-dealer of yesteryear has given way to today’s business casual Joe covering huge territories. Still, the pioneers of Jet Age business travel were not at all like the name-tag wearers of today; they were real closers who got the job done under primitive circumstances. Which is where Olivares’s parable of the chair comes in. It informs us about ourselves and our environment. The parallel tale that it tells of that seat in the sky is a sad one, revealing more about what we’ve lost, than how far we’ve actually come.


About the author

I travel a lot, like many of us. And I work for Amadeus, the largest transaction processing and IT company in the world serving the travel industry.