A Little Bit of Control

When I used to fly a lot, people would ask me why I was such a big fan of Virgin America. Some of it is the usual stuff — they have wifi and power outlets, and travel to the cities I visit most often. But the crux of why I like their brand taught me a good bit more about the obligations companies have to their customers, and what institutions can do to be more humane in general.

The typical flying experience, especially for regular travelers, reduces adults who are used to a high degree of control over their lives to having fewer choices about their actions than a room full of kindergarteners. When we fly, we’re told when we can sit down, when we can stand up, when we can listen to music, and we basically can’t even get up to go to the bathroom without asking, just like a 5-year-old.

It’s even more egregious an affront in the more minor areas: When we fly, we can’t have a drink when we want.

Pushing Our Buttons

Virgin’s touch-screens invert that model, as the best and most empowering experiences do. I can tap on the screen, order a drink, and a few minutes later, someone shows up with my beverage. There’s no waiting for the cart, and it feels much more personal and accommodating to boot.

Now, obviously, this is only giving people the illusion of agency over their actions when they fly. We still can’t stand up or sit down or read an ebook whenever we want. And frequent fliers are often among the worst-behaved, most over-entitled people in society, so we have to be careful exactly how much we want to indulge the desire to appease their every need.

But fundamentally, giving people a little bit of agency over the small actions that bring them joy can do a lot to mitigate the countless indignities that they’re forced to suffer by big bureaucracies and inflexible institutions. An airline can’t make the TSA’s policies more effective or sane, but they can help us regain a bit of our feeling of control and dignity by assuming we can be trusted to ask for a can of Coke when we need one.

I’m trying to keep this small lesson in mind, as I think about the many big companies and institutions that visit unkindnesses upon us every day. There are accommodations they could all be making which could be as minor as letting us push a button to get a drink, but too often they get stuck thinking about the impacts to their own processes rather than how much those little things can mean to the people who are stuck in their machines.