Stand up and take a bow, or perhaps just sit down

They call it the Newspaper of Record, or the Grey Lady, but they read it. The New York Times is in fact one of the most trusted papers in the world. So people paid attention when it ran a front-page story on a plan by airframers to get more revenue out of a large airliner by designing in ‘seats’ that were in fact nearly vertical boards, with the headline ‘One Day that Economy Ticket May Buy You a Place to Stand’. An artist’s conception or drawing of backboards or vertical seats in a sardine or herringbone pattern illustrated the story. Airbus had been “quietly pitching” the concept to Asian-Pacific airlines for an all-economy A380 configuration for use on shorter routes, wrote the newspaper that helped bring down the Nixon administration and more recently broke a story about secret US facilities for detainees in the depths of Europe.

This is a great story, and woe on the reporters who ‘missed’ it. They had only one defence: the story wasn’t actually true. Within hours of the NYT publication, Airbus was denying the story to anyone who’d listen. Problem was, few were listening, much less asking. Papers across the country and world ran stories about how the greedy price-gouging airlines were laughing all the way to the bank with this plan to keep people ‘standing for hours on end with no food or drink.’ (This line was from another Times that also has a great name, the one in London); other papers noted that it was just part of a trend such as charging for meals or in some cases charging for seat selection. ‘Sardines get a Better Ride’, bemoaned the Boston Herald.

It took about a week for The New York Times to run a note saying that Airbus had denied the report and that the paper was investigating. And a few days after that, an editors’ note said the paper didn’t know that the concept, if it had ever moved to the concept stage, had been abandoned several years back. And this week, the Times’ in-house critic ran a critical piece, saying that the paper’s “imprecise questions to Airbus elicited mushy responses,” but that it should not have run the story with the standing-room only angle. It could have rune a solid story on new technology for seats, said the ombudsman or readers’ editor. (    

We offer this not as schadenfreude, for clearly things like this can happen to the best of publications. We offer this as evidence that the public image of airlines is so low that almost any charge (‘they’re cheating on maintenance’; ‘they’re turning off the engines and coasting’) can carry credibility. A few of the screed-writers acknowledged that airline profits are perhaps measurably less than those in the gasoline and refinery industry (‘For money-losing airlines, no space is the final frontier,’ chided the Seattle Post-Intelligencer), but most, as the same P-I scribe, stayed on the road to journalism through resentment. (“Airlines will always have the plush seats for the fat cats…” said Seattle‘s number-two daily). Yes, but when will airlines stop beating their wives?

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