#PRFAIL: Airlines’ First Class-Steerage Squeeze & Google’s Anti-Pregnancy Freeze

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Yet another industry has recently reminded us that ignoring the needs of the customer and deviating from greater purpose is never a good look: airlines.

If you’ve seen the movie Titanic (and if you haven’t, well, shame on you), you’re familiar with the contrast between “first class” and “steerage.” We know that modern airlines ostensibly have a “first class” as well – while most of us fly “economy” – but we would hope that “economy” in the 21st century would look like safe and reasonable accommodations for everyone rather than the steerage of the early 1900s.


Even FIRST CLASS on most domestic U.S. flights is beginning to look more and more like “economy,” and “economy” is Design looking more and more like a sardine can. Frequent first class flyers are noting that leg rests have vanished, the food has only gotten worse and worse, and the seats and bathrooms are becoming tiny.1 And it’s not just your imagination that airline seats have gotten smaller – a former editor of Consumer Reports analyzed data from the 1980s until recent years, and both seat pitch (the distance between one row and another) and seat width have decreased by around three inches.2

Why should you care that first class has declined if you don’t usually “upgrade?” Because first class is the best an airline can do, and if that goes downhill, you’d better believe that economy is going right down with it – there has to be some difference (or airlines have to make “steerage” so uncomfortable that you’re going to try to upgrade to the marginal comforts of “first class” as much as possible).

The most embarrassing thing for airlines is that it’s gotten so bad, and customers are so annoyed, that the federal government has taken action. In 2018, President Trump signed into law the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act.3 It regulates – for the purposes of safety and comfort – how small seats can be and how many people airlines can pack onto a plane. Scary fact: airline evacuation regulations have not been updated since 1967, despite smaller planes, more luggage per passenger, smaller seats, and other changing factors.4 This is about more than just legroom.

And it’s a prime example of that unchecked profit motive we talked about earlier overriding a business’s duty to its customers (the PUBLIC!) and to its higher purpose. Incidents on airlines and overall dissatisfaction with them are at an all-time high. It’s only a matter of time before this erosion of reputation reflects itself in dollars and cents.

Another cdesignompany was recently outed as completely failing its responsibility to its employees. An over 2,000-word memo was recently sent out at Google by a female employee – and was distributed all over the internet – detailing discrimination, harassment  and retaliation she experienced as a result of her pregnancy while at the company. It was rather bluntly titled, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here’s Why.”5

Being pregnant while working is stressful enough, but this woman was subject to a living hell. Her manager retaliated against her for months after she reported disparaging pregnancy-related comments to HR, and when she was finally able to switch teams, she was denied managerial responsibilities – and her next manager strongly discouraged her from taking the early maternity leave she needed for potentially life-threatening health reasons.6

If you want to get mad, too, you can read the whole thing here, but for now, I want to look at the common denominator that was missing in action: Google’s HR. What were they doing? Who were they actually working for? What are these supposed “strong measures in place” to prevent retaliation, when an employee makes a complaint, that clearly failed here 100%? Google HR also apparently investigated both of these crummy managers, and found nothing that would require any kind of corrective action or management changes.7

HR is supposed to protect the interests of a company by taking good care of its employees, not by “guarding” the company against any need to take responsibility. The result? Terribly unflattering articles about Google’s apparently toxic internal culture – nothing could do a better job of causing shareholders to lose confidence or scaring away potential talent (especially, in this case, female talent – hello diversity in tech!).

Google has also been plagued by walkouts to protest the enormous severance packages awarded to male executives accused of sexual harassment – as well as the publication of another memo by a male employee arguing that women were biologically less suited to tech work.8


Get it together, Google – what’s your purpose? What is the health and safety of your employees worth? And are you serious about the cause of women in tech?

1) Elliott, Christopher. “First Class Is Fading Fast. Here’s Why That’s Bad News for Economy Travelers, Too.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 11 Aug. 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/airline-news/2019/08/09/first-class-fading-rewards-program-upgrades-partially-blame/1963518001/.
2) McGee, Bill. “Think Airline Seats Have Gotten Smaller? They Have.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 27 Dec. 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/columnist/mcgee/2014/09/24/airplane-reclining-seat-pitch-width/16105491/.
3) McGee, Bill. “Airline Seat Size: Will FAA Bring Relief to Squeezed Flyers?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 15 Nov. 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/columnist/mcgee/2018/11/15/airline-seat-size-faa/2003043002/.
4) Ibid.
5) Kraus, Rachel. “Viral Google Employee Memo Alleges Pregnancy Discrimination.” Mashable, Mashable, 5 Aug. 2019, https://mashable.com/article/viral-google-memo-pregnancy-discrimination/.
6) Ibid.
7) Ibid.
8) Franceschi-Bicchierai, Lorenzo, and Jason Koebler. “Google Employee Alleges Discrimination Against Pregnant Women in Viral Memo.” Vice, 5 Aug. 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59nmkx/google-employee-alleges-discrimination-against-pregnant-women-in-viral-memo.

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