Planes, Change, and Serotonin

A recent Vox article informed us of something many of my readers already know: the way we board planes makes no sense. First class passengers board first, then from back to front: “back-first”. Back-first is tedious because you wait in the aisle as the guy who will sit two rows behind you stows his bag, the lady sitting in the aisle in your row has to get up and let you in, but she has to wait because another guy is going the other way looking for the flight attendant. Too much contention for too little space.

Here’s the more interesting question: why is this still the case when those in the know have known for years? Fix it already! Explanations for corporate behavior often boil down to one of two factors: ignorance or malice. Vox goes for door number two, their reasoning being that inconvenient boarding provides an incentive for passengers to purchase upgrades. In other words: exploiting passenger misery for profit. 

The ignorance or malice question has been the crux of many lunchtime debates among my colleagues for years. It’s interesting to see how some find ignorance arguments appealing and others malice. ”Why” questions are tough to answer, but I suspect it’s more complicated than either one. Airlines employ tons of talented people to carry out all sorts of analytics on all aspects of their operations, from routing to fuel to pricing to the boarding experience. They get it. Airlines also employ business analysts who understand that airline travel is something close to a commodity, especially in the age where passengers have nearly perfect information thanks to the internet. The airline business is a race to zero unless you differentiate the passenger experience. Boarding, along with the security process and the ride itself, are the three principal experiences that form our impression of a flight. (Airlines control only two.) Airlines are not intentionally mean nor ignorant, so we return to…why the dumb policy?

Change is uncomfortable in large organizations because it is risky to propose and approve internally, and dangerous to implement for fear of customer backlash (people notice). You’d better be able to defend it inside and out. The back-first policy is hard to change because it makes intuitive sense. If perfectly organized by the airlines, and executed by we passengers, there would be few conflicts in a back-first boarding. Moving away from what seems intuitive risks freaking out passengers, and indeed the Vox article points out that customer satisfaction decreases when certain, empirically better policies (better = faster; “better” is a loaded word) are implemented. People seldom lose their jobs, or are passed over for promotion, for doing what seems intuitive. Back-first follows the principle of least surprise. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, as the old saying goes. Only an airline that has a strong sense of “self” – an organization that knows and adheres to clearly articulated values – can veer from the conventional wisdom, as Southwest has.

The other elephant in the cabin is that Uncle Moneybags and Muffy get to board first because they bought first class tickets. This screws up the boarding experience of the unwashed, yet we’re fine with it. A boarding experience without regard to class would maximize overall utility, and who could argue with that? Few resent first class passengers because we feel that purchasing privilege is fair, because the ability to purchase is a sign of status, because we associate status with “alphas”, and long ago alphas protected the rest of us from danger, as Simon Senek has so eloquently pointed out. Thus we allow the first class passenger a shot of serotonin as he boards. Alphas eat last but board first. Me? I pack light, play Candy Crush while everyone else fidgets and waits, and take my seat once the dust settles. An imaginary Zone 6 of one. 


Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

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