Friday, April 28, 2006

Fear and greed in air travel

Shawn Conahan posted about the insanity in trying to get on the plane first when traveling.  This stems from changes that have been made over the years:

  • When I was a kid I remember lugging all kinds of suitcases for my parents.  My dad always got us on the plane first so that we could stow all the extra crap that we were carrying.
  • When I was in high school, airport screeners started putting size templates on the x-ray machines and had airline representatives available to check baggage that did not fit through the templates and they aggressively enforce the size rule.  There was a big run on baggage that would allow you to pack the maximum amount while adhering to the size guidelines and some people worried less about getting on the planes early because the rules effectively maximized storage space on planes.
  • Immediately following 9/11, the TSA enacted extremely strict baggage policies that essentially meant that you were fitting everything into a single bag that fit into the overhead bins, or you checked everything and just carried a small bag that fit under the seat — people were no longer in a rush to get on the plane because everyone knew that there would be plenty of space.
  • Between 9/11 and now the TSA loosened their regulations, not quite getting to where it was when I was a kid, but allowing people to bring large backpacks and briefcases as “laptop bags” and extremely large bags as “carry-on”.  Now lines start forming 10 minutes prior to boarding and if you are privileged enough to be in one of the early boarding groups, you have to run a gauntlet of people that give you dirty looks in order to get on the plane early.  I have also noticed that lots of people cheat the system and board early just to ensure that there is space for their bags; there does not seem to be a hard and fast rule on boarding enforcement as different gate agents enforce things completely differently from flight to flight and city to city.

As Shawn points out in his post, this is driven by fear and greed:

The whole plane leaves at the same time, so it’s not like you get there any faster by getting on the plane first.

People are driven by their fear of having no bin space at all, which means having to gate check their carry-on baggage and the ensuing hassle that it represents, not the least likely of which is that your luggage simply doesn’t arrive at all. They are also inversely driven by their greed to have as much bin space as possible to ensure a hassle-free travel experience.

The airlines seem to be do nothing to enforce boarding policies and baggage policies in order to eliminate some of this fear and greed.  In addition I have noticed that many gate agents have started to neglect mentioning early boarding for people needing more time to board the plane, meaning that people with disabilities and/or people traveling with small children are left to fend for themselves and run the gauntlet that I described above.

Unfortunately the consequence of a lack of enforcement is that everyone is forced to play the same game for the same reasons.  Due to my status on United I always board in Seating Area 1 regardless of where my seat is on the plane and because so many people are scared and greedy, I find myself feeling like I need to be on the plane early in order to ensure that I get bin space above my seat (nothing infuriates me more than being in the first few rows and having to stow my bag in the back of the plane because people that are bucking the system have not only boarded when they should not have been allowed to, but have also stowed their baggage in the bins closest to the door rather than above their seat).  Probably the most frustrating is when I sit in bulkhead seats and with no one else in the seats next to me, the overhead bin is full by the time I get on the plane — I did once have a flight attendant clear the overhead bin for my stuff and we found that all of the items in the bin belonged to someone at the back of the plane with an empty bin above his head.

What is fear and greed causing your customers to do?  What are you doing about it?


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