SFO-BOS: The Geekiest Flight in the Air?

The guy in 28C works for a cutting-edge Boston-based energy company with California clients whose name is a collection of random-seeming consonants and vowels that sounds like a parody from Office Space.

He flies this route only once a quarter, which makes him pretty much an interloper on the Boston-San Francisco nonstop. But somewhere over Colorado, he pulls out a study guide for the certified financial analyst exam.

Eventually 28C might become among the regulars—the techies and venture capitalists—who make this arguably the geekiest flight in the air.

“There’s probably something to that,” says Luanne Calvert, herself a Google and eBay veteran who now is marketing director for Virgin America, which flies two daily nonstops between the cities and will add a third next month.

“Boston is home to MIT and Harvard and a lot of top schools and tech companies, and here you have Stanford and Silicon Valley,” says Calvert, whose office is near San Francisco. The passengers who fly that route, she says, “probably skew a little geeky, a little bit smarter than the average.”

Or a lot smarter. San Francisco has the highest and Boston the third-highest number of people per square mile with bachelor’s and graduate degrees—edged out of second only by densely populated New York—according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Silicon Valley ranks highest in patents per capita, while Boston leads in the Milken Institute’s index of science and technology, which measures research-and-development investment, technological and scientific workforce, entrepreneurial infrastructure, and “dynamism.” And the two regions come in first and second nationally in venture-capital funding; just three Boston-based firms accounted for more than a third of the $4.1 billion in venture capital raised during this year’s first quarter.

That accounts for the suits (with neatly starched open-neck shirts but no ties) in first class, past whom stream the passengers wearing MIT sweatshirts (some 162,000 MIT alumni live in California, more than in any other state), cell phones holstered securely to their belts, with carry-on bags from conferences of associations bearing acronyms as indecipherable as software code.

They kibbitz about programming, and ponder which disruptive innovations might help airlines speed the boarding process, then turn to their MacBooks. On Virgin America, they have wifi at their seats and can order drinks and meals on a touch screen or play electronic trivia with other passengers.

“We are focused on a guest that expects to have a technologically savvy experience,” says Calvert, whose airline calls its flights to San Jose the “#nerdbirds”; when those flights launched this month, passengers were given nerd glasses and pocket protectors. “It’s kind of a status symbol now.”

San Francisco is the second-busiest destination for nonstop flights from Boston, after Washington D.C., according to the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan International Airport; more than a million passengers a year fly there, or more than 2,700 per day. (From San Francisco, a Pacific hub, Boston is the 12th-most popular destination.) Another 116,000 Boston passengers per year fly nonstop to San Jose.

Of course, to suggest there’s indisputable empirical evidence for this flight being the brainiest aloft would contradict the very spirit of inquiry it represents.

“Forgive my own social-science geekiness, but to judge whether this is the geekiest line in the air—assuming we had a way to measure this on any particular flight—you would have to compare many other routes on the same measure,” says Mark Granovetter, a Stanford sociologist who directs the Silicon Valley Network Analysis Project.

“Of course it’s true that Boston and Silicon Valley are the two classic high-tech regions,” Granovetter says. “So your guess is plausible enough. But without the control group of other routes, we really have no way of knowing for sure.”

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