Bad Dream(liners)

It’s been a long day. You’ve rushed through the overheated airport and found your way to the gate, where your flight is already boarding. You hurry down the jetway and squeeze your bags into the overhead locker; plonk your weary self into your seat and wonder if the seat has got narrower or you’ve got wider.  As you relax, feeling rather chuffed that you’ve made your flight, you feel waves of tiredness pass over you.

Opting not to doze off, you reach for the nearest piece of reading material – that strange journalistic genre of the inflight magazine, where the airline’s view of itself seems strangely at odds with your current view of it.

A couple of pages in you find that letter from the airline CEO explaining how they’re constantly striving to enhance their product and offer a world class service.

There then follows a long list of enhancements that the airline – indeed the whole airline industry – is making to improve their service to you.

In this strange world of marketing speak the word ‘enhancement’ has taken on a rather bizarre, quite contrary and very unwelcome meaning.


We start with that Dreamliner you’re sitting in.  And first the good news – you’ve not gotten fatter, the seats really are narrower.

In the late 1990s there was a multibillion pound battle taking shape between the two behemoths of the aviation industry. Airbus invested heavily in its A380, reckoning that huge aircraft would be necessary to manage capacity between the world’s capacity-constrained mega hubs.

Boeing meanwhile invested in a replacement for their smaller ageing 767. Boeing dubbed its new aircraft the Dreamliner. The new 787 Dreamliner was intended to save airlines a fortune and allow them to open up direct routes to new destinations. The use of modern materials and new fuel-efficient jets would slash fuel costs. We weren’t so much told about the cost saving – only how much better the aircraft would be for passengers.

The Dreamliner was both hyped beyond belief and massively late in being delivered.  Those bigger windows, lower cabin pressure, better in-flight entertainment and increased fuel efficiency were, according to both the manufacturer and airlines, supposed to revolutionise air travel.

For the first time since Concorde entered service, an airliner was being marketed with a name rather than a number (Boeing’s 747 ‘jumbo’ jet was a moniker applied by the press rather than Boeing themselves.)

Yet when you squeeze into your economy seat you can’t help but think things might just be going backwards.

Boeing’s original mock-up of the Dreamliner cabin foresaw eight seats across the economy cabin – two seats by each window and a bank of four in the middle between the isles – for a total of eight across.

Yet virtually every airline – save Japan Air Lines – has now installed nine seats across the cabin. It’s a tight squeeze.  Particularly because in the years since the Dreamliner programme was launched by Boeing in the early 2000s, waistlines have grown bigger.

For most passengers the Dreamliner has turned into something of a bad dream.  It’s cramped and uncomfortable compared with what they were used to.

Indeed, by contrast, when you now fly on an aging 777 the economy cabin feels pleasantly spacious with just nine seats across.   Sure the cabin might look a bit tatty and the video screens a bit blurry, but you can settle down with a good book and a bit of space to call your own. It hasn’t been hyped or enhanced. It’s just comfortable.


Maybe, though, you read in the airline magazine about how the airline is planning to “enhance” and “upgrade” their older 777s.  When you read their spin, you should be worried.

Sure they’ll fit new inflight entertainment, possibly with power plugs for your laptop and ipad.  And maybe even in-flight wifi.  But they’ll also take the opportunity to slim down the seats and squeeze in ten seats across the cabin when previously there were just nine.

You might be able to power your laptop but you’ll be too squashed in to use it. There’s new a global trend in retrofitting 777s to cram in more seats.

Yet airline PR departments will go wild with their ‘refreshed’, ‘new’ and ‘upgraded’ cabins.  But increasing most airlines are making the 777 an equally unpleasant experience – all masked in gloriously positive PR.


Meanwhile on shorter flights around Europe, British Airways recently trumpeted the cabin ‘revamp’ on their short haul fleet of Airbus A319s and A320s.

The press release gushed that they were “taking your comfort to new heights” with “contemporary LED lighting that adjusts throughout the flight to help you relax” and “bespoke leather seats innovatively designed to maximise your personal space”.

All this means, you guessed it, that they’ve slashed the legroom – by up to four inches – to squeeze in an extra 11 seats per plan. Less room and an more people all fighting for space in the overhead lockers doesn’t exactly make for a relaxing flight.

BA’s legroom is now on par with Ryanair.  None of that makes it into the press release.


And so for many passengers it comes as a surprise when they take a flight and the marketing spin is so wildly out of kilter with reality.

I don’t particularly object to such cost savings. Flying is cheaper and more accessible than it’s ever been. And legacy carriers have to adapt to stay competitive.

But I really object to airline PR departments spinning lies to their customers.

Just this week a BA press release enthused:

“From 11 January, we’re upgrading our food offering in our short haul economy cabins (Euro Traveller and UK Domestic) on flights to and from London Heathrow and London Gatwick.”

“Offering you more choice and a wide selection of the flavours you love from the ‘M&S on board’ menu.”

It’s the adjective ‘upgrading’ that really gets me.

You’ve surely read enough to realise this isn’t an upgrade. It means they’re stopping free food and drink.

Rather than just telling us the truth – that they need to make ends meet amongst fierce competition – they insist on wrapping changes up in positive spin.

What’s worse is that airline PR departments seem intent on blaming you for the change.

According to BA’s CEO, the demand for change is coming from passengers:

“[the passengers] told us we are experts in flying and service, but when it comes to catering on short-haul flights, they want to choose from a wider range of premium products.

Ask the right questions and you can get a survey to tell you whatever you want.

You can bet, when asked, no one told BA they’d like to pay for a gin and tonic that was previously free.

They’ve clearly run a survey to give them the results they wanted.


Businesses frequently get in trouble when senior managers start to believe their own PR departments, or search only for evidence which backs up their own thinking.

Politicians get in trouble when they start to believe their own PR too.

Indeed, I’d argue that the popular rebellion against mainstream politicians – witness Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, UKIP, and the rest – is a result principally of the public being sold too often one version of reality which is so at odds with their own perception of reality.


So when you read in your inflight magazine that the service your airline is providing has been enhanced, you too might think ‘no it hasn’t’  – and I’ll vote for – or buy from – someone else next time I’m booking my flights.

Trading Time

How many times have you sat through a meeting that’s overrun? Worse still a meeting that has overrun but which still hasn’t reached any conclusions?

The problem is often blamed on bad chairing. To be sure, too many meetings are badly chaired. But the real problem is that people speak without anything to say.  So meetings roll on without getting anywhere.

Meetings are not the only fixture of modern business life that needed fixing. The dreary PowerPoint presentation has long needed an overhaul. And various people have proposed just that. Like the PechaKucha format where each speaker gets to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each – making for a maximum presentation length of just under seven minutes.

The rapid rotation means people tend not to over complicate their slides. That the slides automatically advance keeps people focused on the rapidly diminishing time and dissuades dithering. And even if it all goes horribly wrong and they turn out not to have thought anything through, at least each presentation is mercifully short. It’s virtually fool proof.


The problem with meetings is that speaking at length so rarely correlates with saying something new or insightful.  In fact I’ve come to believe that the two are actually inversely correlated.  The longer someone speaks in a meeting the less they actually have to say. They’re using waffle to mask their lack of thought. Meetings don’t incentivise brevity or being concise.

To be sure, there are times when taking through a problem with someone can help.  Freedom to speak without direction or purpose can help to solve problems, uncover new ideas or reach conclusions. But this works best with just two or three people. And generally over a meal or glass of wine when you can defend an idea that you don’t particularly agree with, just to see where the arguments take you.

But this absolutely doesn’t work in larger business meetings, where speaking without a direction or purpose should be – vigorously – discouraged.


So how about a modern foolproof fix for meetings? A talking stick for the age of apps?

All meetings have just two things in common: they have a fixed number of participants and a fixed number of minutes available. Everything else – from whether decisions are made, to whether you start bashing your head on the table in frustration – is entirely optional.

So here’s my idea for a new meeting format – complete with accompanying app.

The first requirement to ensure a meeting doesn’t overrun, is that you simply divide the number of minutes available by the number of participants.

When you join a meeting – whether you’re on a teleconference or around a table, each participant logs-in on their phone. Your available speaking time appears on the screen of your phone – and on the chair’s.

For example if your meeting is an hour long and you have ten participants, the app allocates everyone six minutes. That’s entirely fair and democratic.

When you speak your time decreases. When your time is up, it’s up. If you start waffling at the beginning of a meeting, you are punished by having to sit in silence for the rest of the meeting. You have an incentive to be concise and only speak when you have something important to say.

You tap your screen when you start taking and your time would start to tick away.  When someone else starts talking or interrupts they tap their phone.  Your time stops descending and theirs starts.   This is not too dissimilar to how meetings with translation operate. Then you have to press a button to activate your microphone before speaking.

The chair – with a special app – could moderate and punish anyone who starts taking without starting their time.

The app would also lock everyone’s phone during the meeting so you’re forced to be mentally present in the meeting – there would be no more passive-aggressive checking of emails.

But meetings aren’t just about talking. They are – or should be – about listening.

I often find myself wanting to hear more of someone who’s making an interesting point, only for them to be interrupted by a big mouth before they’ve made their point.

A good meeting chair should be able to stop this sort of interruption. But often office politics comes into play. Even a good chair might be loathed to, or simply unable to interrupt their boss.  The app could negate this.

Anyone supporting another speaker would be able give away a little of their own speaking time to allow someone else to continue developing an argument or idea. They could wirelessly – and anonymously – trade them a few minutes of their time.

There would be nothing to stop someone being interrupted. But over the course of the meeting they would be guaranteed time to make their point.

People making good concise arguments would be rewarded with more time.  People who are dull or wafflers wouldn’t.

This way the meeting becomes more democratic. Everyone is allocated the same amount of time but they can choose how it’s used and which voices get to be heard. Serial interrupters wouldn’t get to hog a meeting.  People who like the sound of their own voice wouldn’t get to keep everyone late. People who might be shy but know a good idea when they hear it, could make sure those ideas are heard.

This way of trading time would take some getting use to. People would have to learn to make points more concisely. Learn to listen and decide what’s important.

Those who don’t like the format might storm off in a huff. The app would ensure they took their minutes with them when they left.

You might quickly reach a point where meetings routinely finish before are they due. That way by trading time, you’d actually have made time.

And no one would leave a meeting having felt they’ve not had a fair hearing.

Time very well spent.

The Liberal Cab Company

As I potter about London on my bike, I often find myself worrying that being a cab driver in the capital can’t be much fun. Stuck behind the wheel of a stuffy London black cab; stuck breathing in the fumes from the cab in front; stuck in traffic and with hundreds of cyclists scooting just inches away from your stationary vehicle can’t be that enjoyable.

I say I find myself worrying – mainly because I’m one of those liberal-progressive-lefties who find themselves worrying about the lives, hopes and ambitions of others. Worrying more than is perhaps advisable.

Truth be told, I don’t particularly find being sat in the back of a black cab that enjoyable either. Partly because they’re hot and slow – when I could be zipping past on a bike, enjoying the cool breeze.

There is another reason though. I always feel the need to engage the person providing me with a service in conversation. How rude it would be – I always think –  just to slump in the back and ignore the driver in silence, or worse still chatter away on the phone with them forced to listen in.

So I make polite conversation. Then immediately regret it.


When I was late back from Gatwick a few weeks ago, the tube had already shut for the night so I grabbed a taxi from Victoria station. As we queued along the Embankment the driver started to complain about the roadworks taking place to build a new cycle lane.

“Terrible” he said.

“Bloody cyclists should have insurance. Should pay tax.” he continued.

Now I was tired, and not particularly in the mood to get into a debate.

‘It keeps cyclists out of your way’ I thought.

‘Why wouldn’t drivers be most in favour of it?’ I pondered and shifted forward in my seat getting ready to argue my point.

Then thought, ‘No, I’m not getting into this’. But the rest of the journey resulted in me biting my tongue.  I didn’t pay a tip


A few weeks later I was in a rush and carrying some boxes back from a meeting – it was the week before the referendum.  With some precarious balancing, I stuck out my hand and hailed a passing cab.


But as it pulled in, just past me, I noticed a big ‘VOTE LEAVE’ sticker in the rear window.

And I thought ‘I’m not in the mood to have to make the liberal case for immigration’.

So I made profuse apologies and the cab driver screeched off, f’ing and blinding. I pulled out my phone and called an Uber.


The third and final straw came when, coming back late from an event, the cab driver who picked me up raised his suspicious that climate change was a myth.

I looked around me suspiciously for hidden cameras, fearing I might have become the subject of a new reality television series where a cab driver tries to see how quickly he can make his passenger flip.


Now I realise that it’s not a particularly progressive thing to tar a whole profession based on three small examples, but it got me thinking.

Cab Drivers do have a reputation for being right-wing populists, not least as satirised by Private Eye’s ‘A Taxi Driver Writes’ column – “String ’em up, I say. It’s the only language they understand.”

Now that Uber is now starting to decimate the cabbie’s business, there must be a better way – a way for the humble black cab to fight back.

So I offer you The Liberal Cab Company – a cab company for a liberal, progressive, openminded metropolis like London.  If the London Taxi Drivers Association wants to take my idea they can have it for free.

For The Liberal Cab Co. those old, clunky, smoky diesel cabs would be phased out. In their stead a fleet of electric or hydrogen powered vehicles would be introduced to ease your guilt at C02 and particulate emissions.

The cabin would be nicely airconditioned – perhaps through a particulate filter – to protect the driver’s health as much as yours.

Inside, as you settle into your seat, the driver would be playing Radio 4 – perhaps Woman’s Hour – or Africa Today on the BBC’s World Service,  rather than shock-jock reactionary nonsence from Talk Radio or LBC.

As the driver pulls away – carefully avoiding passing cyclists – they’d enquire how the temperature was in the back of the car.  Perhaps eluding to their fears that global temperature rises were having a disproportionate effect on the poorest in society.

After an appropriate period of reflective silence, they might say how proud there were to work in the first major western city to have a Muslim mayor. And how amazed they were at the blistering pace of work Sadiq managed during Ramadan.

‘Not a drop of water passed his lips all day!’ they might say with genuine respect.

“That EU referendum! Don’t even get me started guvnor…  What an awful job the broadcasters did of interpreting their statutory impartiality duty.”

As you neared your destination, you’d pull out your credit card and you’d be able to pay using a contactless payment reader.  The attached screen would show how much tax had been paid to the exchequer as a result of your ride.

‘Thanks for paying your tax – you’ve helped pay the salaries of nurses and doctors in our NHS’ – contrasting nicely to how little Uber was generating to help society.

Each time you hailed a Cab from the Liberal Cab Company, you’d be assured of a comfy ride with a liberal progressive driver.

As you winded your way through the bustling city, as you looked out the window you’ve have and an amazing outlook on one of the greatest cities in the world.  And at the same time an assuridely progressive outlook on the world from your liberal cab driver.

On Blame and Fear

Britain has now had its ill-advised referendum.  And guess what, the pollsters got it wrong again.

There is shock, anger and incomprehension amongst those of us who voted rationally for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union.

It seems our desire to live in a tolerant, liberal and open country has been ripped away from us against our will.  With our anger comes a natural desire for blame.  But blame is hugely dangerous. We must, I believe, think calmly and fairly before dishing out blame.   We are a divided enough country as it is.

Those of us who are angry now must remember that there is clearly much anger too amongst those who voted to leave. And they are right to be angry.

There is huge anger that the current system seems to benefit just a few. Anger that jobs have become harder to find and harder to hold on to.

There’s anger that you can’t get a doctors appointment when you need one. Or a hospital appointment when you’re sick.

Anger that there’s a battle to get your kids into the good school rather than the failing one.

Anger too that housing costs have spiralled and are out of reach of the vast majority.

Anger that graduates are now starting to see the massive repayment bills for their student loans and can’t find the well paid jobs they were promised would repay them.

Anger that too many town centres have become shitty places to spend time.  And real bloody anger that no one in charge seems to understand.

There’s fear too that in an unstable world the next terrorist shooting or bombing might be just around the corner, all too close to home.

Anger is a dangerous thing. And fear even more so. People who are angry and scared can be encouraged to do strange things.

It’s no accident that immigration became the defining aspect of this referendum campaign. The leave campaign made it so in an aggressively cynical way.  There is much evidence – not that hard evidence counts for much these days – that perception of immigration is out of all step with reality.

Asked to estimate the number of non-UK born EU citizens living in the country most people – but Leave voters in particular – wildly overestimate the figures.

And fear of terrorism is wildly out of proportion to the risks. In the UK some 1700 people died brutally in carnage on the roads of Britain in 2013 – the last year for which figures were available. But traffic accidents don’t lead in the media or scare us quite like terrorism.  Fear of terrorism does. UK deaths from terrorism that year? One.

Yet somehow a small minority of politicians – egged on by a divisive media – have managed to persuade angry and scared voters that the cause of their troubles is immigrants, not an aggressive programme of cuts to public services.

These siren voices exist in all countries, but they’re normally kept in check by an active and vocal campaign of opposition from progressive and liberal voices.

The system should be self balancing.  But progressives all too often fail to make their case convincingly in a popular way. When we fail the system get skewed to the right.

In truth although I’m hugely sad that the freedoms afforded me by the European Union – principally the ability to live, work and travel freely across this great continent are about to be wrenched from me, I will eventually get over it.

What I will never get over though is that I now live in a country where a large swathe of the population has been so easily turned to fear and hate others. That always seems to so very un British. But something scary has been unleashed. And I fear it’ll be difficult to rein it in.

Once the vicious anti-immigrant campaign have moved on from attacking European immigrants, where will they go next?

If the situation of those who voted leave doesn’t improve quickly – and it won’t at the hands of a hard right clique intent on more cuts and social devision – where will the ire be turned next?

That makes me scared.

With an opposition Labour party in turmoil – with a nice but incompetent leader, I don’t know where to turn to effect change.

I feel strangely powerless.  Much like, I suspect, all those who voted leave.