Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 


It was an offer that few could have refused.

It was from British Airways and it read: "We'll fly you to London. The minute you land, we'll let you pilot a 747 out of Heathrow."

I've never piloted a plane in my life. For 20 years, I took Valium-like substances to even get on planes. And now these people wanted to put me at the controls? Were they bonkers?

Of course, I paraphrase slightly. The idea was to fly me from the west coast to Heathrow. Then, just slightly jet-lagged, I was to be put into a 747 flight simulator. Because, oh, I was being softened up.

British Airways will next year start flying from San Jose Airport (Silicon Valley's very own) to London. It knows that I have a slightly jaundiced view of techies. So it wanted me to cast my life-addled eyes on what it was doing to prepare for them.

But first, I had to land the 747.

I crashed it, of course, but only on the first landing. My flight instructor, the very British former jumbo jet captain Peter Ward, allowed himself merely the faintest smile as the plane smacked into the runway, nose first.

No one screamed. A couple of people in the cockpit just shook their heads as if to say: "There goes another one."

I got the hang of it, however. I brought everyone down safely the second time. The third time, honestly, I could have even taxied it to the gate and announced an on-time arrival with a frightfully British accent if they'd let me.

They're not quite so insane. Although some of the tech types that will soon be flying BA might be.

The Techies? Let Them Eat Dreamliner.

Have some sympathy for the people who have to design the interiors of planes.

Aircraft are ordered years in advance. How is a designer supposed to predict what the world will look like years ahead?

Could any designer have fully imagined how large human beings would become over the last 10 or 20 years? Could any designer have foreseen all the iPads and laptops that now populate cabins and annoy anyone who prefers to travel in peace and not work?

Still, in order to make Silicon Valley's finest (who, you might conclude, aren't all that refined) as comfortable as possible, British Airways is using its latest Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on the San Jose-Heathrow route.

This is, in some ways, an unassuming big thing. It has two engines the size of Noah's Ark. Its wings are capable of bending in the same configurations as the legs of a 13-year-old Russian gymnast. Yet inside it's all "How do you do? How very nice to see you."

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I asked BA's Design Lead Peter Cooke what the company was trying to achieve with its design. You will suddenly find yourself speaking without moving your lips when I tell you his answer was "Understated elegance."

It's so British. But I could argue that this fits rather well with the pretensions of your average (as so many of them are) techie.

They wear T-shirts of a single color every day. They sometimes struggle with words like normal humans struggle with making one of their infernal apps work. They aren't always good at looking you in the face, making them akin to upper-class Brits (before they have several sherries and a nifty Chablis, that is).

So in order to keep them away from even other techies, the BA Dreamliner only has 8 seats in First Class. Some might find it humorous that the airline wants to give exceptional privacy to executives who regularly stomp on the privacy of others in the cause of "giving you better ads."

But these engineering types are into details, which is why they so rarely see the big picture.

Hark, then, at British Airways' promise of a detailed First Class experience: "The tweed effect seat has a gentle luster and there is Raven Black leather throughout the suite, with a combination of tusk and putty-colored deco panels. The attention to detail reflects that of high-end cars, with five stitches per inch on the armrests and side ledge."

Haven't you always dreamed of putty-colored deco panels? On this Dreamliner, the putty is in your hands. Or, technically, around your suite.

There's even a multitasking capability in these things. You can watch one thing on the handset and another on your vast video screen.

There's something else that these techies -- who have ionizers in their office, masseurs on call and Apple Watches telling them who loves them every minute of the day -- might appreciate.  

The Dreamliner has a different pressurization system. This means that the internal cabin altitude is a mere 6,000 ft. In most other planes it's 8.000 ft. The reduced practical altitude means it feels a little fresher in the cabin, even if some of your fellow passengers haven't washed for a few days. Which, given their métier, they might not have done.

How Much Can Technology Actually Solve?

Airlines seem to have become peculiarly honest, at least in certain areas of their business.

Ray Hagerty, BA's Manager of Operations Strategy, showed me his iPad.

Obviously, I can't tell you everything that was on it (though I tried to look), but he explained how each member of the customer service team is now equipped with these Apple things. If your plane is delayed or if you need to make some sort of change, they can pull up the whole network on the screen and (try and) solve your problem.

"But you never tell customers the whole truth, do you?" I wondered innocently. "There's always some sneaky tricks that you hold back for special people, isn't there?"

Hagerty insisted this wasn't the case. The airline simply wants to please its customers. Now there's a revolution in flying.

It's a slight improvement on those long lines at check-in or transfer desks when weather or that gruesome euphemism "operational reasons" threaten to ruin your day.

Technology, though, has its weaknesses. The first Dreamliners to fly had a problem with their batteries. BA let me climb into the underbelly of the plane and the engineers showed me how the battery is now, according to them, safely encased.

But it seems as if flying comfort only exists -- like stock options that actually pay out a lot of money -- for the select few.

Cooke and his designers have a whole host of internal departments to please -- and so many of those departments have profit as their primary interest. They want more seats on planes, not fewer. They want more profit per passenger, not less.

Can an additional technological knob or whistle make a tech executive fly with British Airways rather than another airline? Perhaps. Or will the airline have to still rely on its understated nature to compete with the slightly stressed bombast of certain US airlines?

At heart, though, the fun (or not) of this new service from San Jose will lie in imagining a whole plane just full of techies.

This is my idea of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, as imagined by Jackson Pollock.

In First Class will be the CEOs and the co-founders. In Club World will be the departmental heads and, of course, the salespeople.

So who's going to be in coach? The engineers? The project managers? I think I know the answer. In a very few years, all these techies will have personal robots.

Coach will be the exclusive preserve of these beings. It will be Robot Central. Think about it. The CEOs and co-founders will likely have 10 robots each, the departmental heads will have a handful. Even the salespeople will be allowed one or two.

Hullo, everyone. Welcome on board your British Airways flight to London's Heathrow airport. Today's flight is very full. Actually, it's a tad overbooked. So we might have to put a few of the coach passengers in the overhead bins. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Just imagine the consternation. Just imagine the putty-colored faces turning puce. Just imagine the clanging of metal from the overhead bins during turbulence.

(Disclosure: BA also covered two nights in a French hotel on this trip.)