Worst airline job? Seating passengers

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Worst airline job? Seating passengers

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Recently, a corporate executive made a fuss over a bowl of instant noodles in an airplane, and I recalled a conversation with an airline employee a few years ago. The airline business was struggling with deficits and accidents. When I asked what the biggest challenge in his job was, I expected him to say fuel prices, safety issues or the chairman. But his answer was different. “Seat placement,” he said. He explained why it was so hard to determine who sits where.

In Korean airliners, the business and first class cabins are the symbol of being rich, famous and powerful. Since every inch of the space counts in the cabin, the location of the seats leads to a war of nerves. If multiple lawmakers are flying on a same aircraft, the airline is in a state of emergency. It would be disastrous if someone complains why he was seated behind another politician. So they try to measure the power of each politician and place them from the first row, 1A, and then 2B, in the order of power, making sure the next seat is left empty as long as the flight is not full.

However, understanding the hierarchy is not easy, as they are not graded like students. So, airliners have to deal with fierce complaints. Some politicians would get off the plane and demand a better seat on the next flight, or even threaten to harm their business. These men of power often demand to speak to someone higher up. Then, the staff members are reprimanded for bringing up complaints to the executives. Naturally, those working at airlines say that seat placement is the hardest challenge of all.

The now-famous “instant noodle executive” must have witnessed these scenes often. According to the flight attendants’ records, he first complained by asking why the seat next to him was not empty. Economy class passengers would, of course, be happy to have an empty seat next to them - considering it pure luck, not a cordial treatment. It must not be the first time for the executive to fly business class, so he must have learned such behavior from other powerful men.

Airplanes are not the only place with coveted seats. Competition for prime seats is common in any country - especially among high-ranking officials. If more than two former ministers are invited to a banquet, the host is either very brave or a master of seat placement. A few days ago, two former economy ministers were invited to a seminar. They argued over who took the top seat, and both decided not to attend, according to a cautionary tale circulated in Sejong City. Sometimes, free tickets can create trouble, too. When they receive VIP guest passes, some would complain and ask why other people got to sit in a better section.

A former professional baseball club owner said that the key to the success of professional baseball was not to give out free tickets. But the tactic does not work for airplanes. Should they get rid of the business class altogether?

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yi Jung-jae

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