The guy in the next seat reminded me that Americans are, on average, bulkier than citizens of most other nations.

Some theorize it’s because of how much fast food we eat, others that it’s because we spend too much time watching television and not enough exercising.

I have a different theory: Everyone wants to ingest the same total amount of flavor. Most of the food we eat has been engineered to survive harvesting and distribution without excessive damage. One side-effect: less taste. To get the same total flavor we have to eat more quantity.

My seatmate offered no opinion, and in fact didn’t actually say anything about the subject. He didn’t have to — his body language spoke volumes, and he occupied same. The result was that I’d paid for a full seat but received only 75% of one.

Don’t worry — we’ll get to running IT. Eventually. But first: The airlines all claim their contorted pricing systems are based on sophisticated mathematical models that base fares on value. They are, of course, telling the truth, but it’s a truth for a different Earth than ours. On this planet, in this dimension, aisle seats are more valuable than window seats, which in turn are more valuable than center seats. Ever see a center-seat discount? Me neither.

It’s unlikely the airlines price as they do, and don’t do, just to be meatballs. My best guess is that each airline’s pricing committee is simply doing what business managers do best — hiding behind the herd.

As mentioned previously in this space, biologists explain herding as a way for individuals to reduce their chances of being eaten by predators. The herd is, of course, a more prominent target than an individual. But in a herd each individual member is less likely to get eaten. One member is taken — usually old or infirm — while the rest escape.

Don’t worry — we’ll get to running IT. Eventually. To do so, though, we next have to visit some research about elks in Yellowstone National Park. Ecologist Scott Creel discovered that bull elks let wolves walk right up and take them down. They’re so busy eating that they can’t be bothered to run away or defend themselves. As Creel put it, “The bulls will pretty much keep eating until you pry the grass from their cold, dead lips.”

It turns out that bull elk expend so much of their time and energy in mating-related activities that they end up too skinny to do anything else. They have to keep eating or they’ll die. So they keep eating, hoping the wolves will either find a different herd or take a different member of theirs.

This does sound just a bit like the airline industry, doesn’t it? The traditional carriers keep on doing what they’ve been doing until one by one they eaten alive by more efficient competitors. Right now, Northwest is the carrier that’s on the edge of Chapter 11. Its answer is the same as everyone’s answer — get concessions from the unions. And since the unions haven’t changed their business strategy since maybe 1955, they aren’t exactly well-equipped to help construct a decent defense, let along a creative, win/win solution.

Everyone is hiding behind the herd.

What’s bothersome about the situation is this: I’d bet that someone, somewhere at Northwest published an analysis years ago warning of the impending challenges and recommending creative ways to circumvent them. Maybe the solution was to charge more for aisle seats than center seats. Maybe it was to replace aging, fuel-guzzling, high-cost-of-maintenance airplanes with cheaper-to-operate upgrades. Maybe it was to offer a seat or two on the board of directors in exchange for wage restructurings. Who knows.

I’d bet an analysis was published and ignored because it turns out there’s an analysis like this, published and ignored, prior to every catastrophic organizational failure. After the Challenger exploded investigators found that NASA management had estimated flight risks at 1% of the risk level recognized by NASA’s engineers. The Army Corps of Engineers has been publishing warnings about the levees protecting New Orleans for years, only to see its budget cut to a fraction of what was needed.

So the chance that nobody at Northwest published an equivalent report is small. The odds that managers up the chain of command each downplayed the report to an increasing extent are high.

And that, at last, brings us to you. Someone, somewhere in your organization knows about a problem, has a pretty good idea of what you should do about it, and wants to tell you. The question is, are you ready to listen?

Or are you imitating a bull elk?