The Quality of Life Bonus of Academics Flying Less Than Other Professionals

The agony of airports and the joy of staying home.

October 9, 2017

As I type these words I’m sitting at terminal B19 at Logan Airport, waiting to board a flight that had been delayed.  There are too few seats at the gate for everyone who needs to wait by the gate in case our flight is called.  Passengers and gate agents are stressed out.  Nobody knows when, or even if, our flight will actually board.

My frustration with airline travel in early 21st century America is balanced by the relative infrequency in which I will repeat this experience.  This is an academic work trip - I’m giving a talk at a conference - but in reality my work travel is comparatively light.

Even the most frequent higher ed travelers are mileage lightweights compared to other knowledge professionals.  Our work travel requirements are less frequent than in jobs that we might have landed, had we not landed our higher ed gigs.

This observation - that higher ed people travel less than other professionals - may come as a surprise to some of you.  Higher ed travel tends to follow the Pareto principal, where 20 percent of academics account for 80 percent of the travel.

If you are in that 20 percent, then you feel like you travel all the time.  You don’t

Even the most dedicated of academics on the speaking and conference circuit are airline amateurs.  We spend some time in airports, but most weeks we are on campus.

Compare our travel requirements to our cousins in consulting, marketing, advertising, or business development.  Those cats are always on airplanes.  A regular week for these folks has a good chance of including a trip on an airplane.

Consulting is the most travel intense, with a normal week consisting of Monday to Thursday travel.  You might think that consultants are some strange breed, but there are an awful lot of people in this industry.  A few wrong turns, and you and I could have found ourselves as consultants.

When academics do travel, it is usually for a good cause.  We may not like out time at the airport, but we enjoy ourselves once we reach our destination.  We go to conferences with people smarter than we are.  We have the privilege of contributing to our communities of practice and creating knowledge within our disciplines.

Academic travel is, for the most part, energizing.

For those of academics who are not amongst the diminishingly lucky few who get to fly on their institutions (or someone else’s dime),  perhaps you might count yourself just a bit lucky.

The bad news is that you are not traveling for work.  The good new is that you are not traveling for work.

My theory is that airport travel takes years off of people’s lives.  Our U.S. airline system is so overloaded, so overcapacity, and so brittle that airplane travel is by now normatively terrible.  Take a flight in the U.S. and you can almost count on being delayed and stressed out.  Who needs it?  A better plan may be just to stay home.

How often do you find yourself engaged in academic travel?


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