• Robb G. Best

What Do The Airlines Have in Common with Your DNA?


The airlines have an interesting policy. Unofficially, it’s called the 1% Defection Rule, and it goes something like this. Imagine that you’re the head of an airline and you want to maximize profit. Your strategy might include offering uncompromising service to guarantee customers will always fly with you. The problem with this strategy is it begins to get expensive; more service = more money (don’t kid yourself, those little bags of peanuts add up). This cuts into corporate revenue, making your shareholders grumpy, and putting your very livelihood in jeopardy.

So instead, being the genius you are, you come up with another strategy: provide just enough services to keep your customers from defecting to the other guy’s airline. It’s just like your buddy the hunter, who takes you into the forest and tells you the old joke about outrunning a Grizzly Bear. He doesn’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than you.

This kind of thinking can be seen in the evolution of the airplane headrest. At one time, each headrest had a removable paper liner to insure that the back of your head never came in contact with the aftermath of the Dapper Dan man who sat there before you, and who might have left behind “a little dab [to] do ya.”

If the lack of cranial sanitation bothers you now, there’s nothing you can really do about it. No matter which airline you fly, the headrest protector has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Too bad for the dinosaurs, but like the airlines, evolution has a tendency to lurch forward, surprisingly following much the same path as the 1% Defection Rule.

When scientists first sequenced the human genome, they encountered a minor predicament. A big portion of the DNA found in humans seemed to serve no purpose. It was just there, hanging out. They appropriately gave it the high-minded scientific nomenclature of “junk DNA.”

This was the predominant belief until along came grad student Hervé Perron, and his radical notion that our genetic junk drawer might actually contain some interesting stuff. (Just like your junk drawer at home.) He had discovered that our DNA also contains the complete code for HERV-W, a retrovirus that causes Multiple Sclerosis. In fact, our chromosomes play host to the blueprints of around 100,000 retroviruses. 40% of our DNA is virus-related. M.S., schizophrenia, and many other diseases have been hiding inside our bodies from birth, Trojan horse style.

Geneticists theorized that, every now and then, a virus managed to slip into the reproductive cells of some early monkey, who passed the whole mess along to their descendants--ultimately, us. Instead of developing an immune system capable of taking down any pathogen under the sun, the body adopted a “seal it and forget it” system, safely walling in the junk DNA with proteins. The airline industry would be proud; not a perfect solution, but hey, good enough!

In today’s world, the “good enough” strategy works pretty well--until you’re assaulted by a whole host of things, some environmental, (like modern chemicals found in the air, water and manufactured products), some internal (including stress chemicals like cortisol), and let’s not forget cellular predisposition, to name but a few. As long as the walls surrounding your Junk DNA stay intact, you’re flying high, but if you’re one of the unfortunate who finds the waters have risen well above the break wall, you may encounter a full Fukushima-style meltdown.

Still, the bottom line is there’s no point in worrying about it. On airplanes, keep your valuables out of the dirtiest place on earth, the seat pocket, and remember to be kind to the overworked flight attendants (who, when confronted with a smile, will often comp you an extra bag of peanuts). As far as your junk DNA goes, help your immune system out by getting plenty of rest, proper nutrition and exercise. Other than that, buckle up for the occasional bump on the flight called life.

I wonder if Trojan horses like peanuts?

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