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Class Warfare Or Omitted Variables? You Be The Judge…

July 26th, 2016 · 1 Comment
Causal Friday

Causal Friday came early this week…

Airplane Design Brings Out the Class Warfare in Us All

Air rage is often blamed on overcrowded flights and postage stamp-size seats, but researchers Michael Norton and Katherine A. DeCelles find another culprit: resentment toward passengers in first class.

Source: HBS Working Knowledge

This paper has been talked about in the media quite a bit recently, and, if true, I find the conclusion to be one of the more depressing things about human nature. Given the focus that society has placed on income inequality rather than income trajectory in a more absolute sense, I do find the conclusion plausible…and that’s before I even rustle up the study that shows people would rather make less money than more money if it meant that they made more money than their neighbors. These attitudes are really not helpful for society, since there is a very clear “pull me up by tearing someone else down” dynamic to them.

Luckily for my view of humanity, the paper referenced above appears to suffer from a number of shortcomings. Most of them are summarized here, but I would like to point out an even simpler issue. Essentially, the study establishes a correlation between the existence of a first-class cabin and disruptive incidents when controlling for, *consults paper*, economy seats, first-class seats, economy seat width, economy seat pitch, first-class seat width, flight distance, flight delay, cabin area, international flight, presence of a first class, and a front-boarding process. What is not controlled for, however, is airline (i.e. there are no airline fixed effects)- statistically, this is probably due to high correlation with the other explanatory variables, though it could have also just been an oversight. This presents a problem, since some airlines, as a blanket policy, don’t have first-class cabins (Southwest and most of Jetblue, for example). If such airlines also manage to be customer-service-oriented enough as to not enrage people on dimensions other than those controlled for in the study, it would look like it was the existence of first class that matters and not the nuobserved variation among airlines in how they treat their passengers. (Similarly, there could be a feature of the front-boarding process unrelated to dragging passengers through the first-class cabin that could be making them cranky.) In other words, it’s possible to read this result as “airlines such as Jetblue are more likely to not have enraged passengers, not by forgoing a first-class cabin but by not completely treating people like cattle.” Though Spirit also doesn’t have a first-class cabin, so what do I know*…

* suggests perhaps it is selection of people to airlines that matters, and Spirit passengers are the most tolerant humans in existence, at least in the moment. 🙂

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