Can We Talk About the Airlines?

I’ve had occasion to travel quite a bit recently, much of it on major commercial air carriers. These are large, multi-billion dollar companies that have mastered the logistical challenges of maintaining and flying huge fleets of aircraft, moving tens of thousands of people around the world everyday. And yet…they don’t seem to understand incentives.

I am, of course, talking about the luggage problem. With the exception of Southwest (an airline with its own problems), these carriers charge somewhere between $25 to $30 per bag for checked luggage while allowing passengers to bring one “carry on” and one “personal item” at no charge. This incents cost cautious travelers to try and carry on all of their belongings in the hope of avoiding the fees. This also means that people will try to cram more ridiculously over stuffed bags into the overhead compartments than the engineers ever intended. The result of this is people in the later boarding groups missing out on overhead compartment space, being forced to check their bags (at no cost), and the entire boarding process expanding into 40 minutes of Purgatory for everyone on board. How can this be a desirable outcome for the airlines, their staff, or the passengers?

Adding insult to injury many airlines, aware of the problems they’ve created with bags will offer a “friendly” announcement at the gate, “this is a very full flight and overhead bin space will be limited. If you’d like to check your bag all the way to your final destination, come see me at the podium and we will be happy to do so at no charge.”

Wait…what?!? You charged me $30 to check my bag before I went through security and now it’s free? Can I get a refund?

See? These people know nothing about incentives.

So what would be a better approach? One that incentivizes passengers to do what the airlines (should) want. Make it so you can check every bag you want for free and you can bring one personal item with you on the plane. Want to bring a second carry on item with you into the cabin? Perfect…it’s $50.

This would serve to make passengers really think about what and why they bring something into the cabin. You’re two piece 9′ fly rod in the Orvis case? Check it. Your bag that was too big to fit int the overhead before you overstuffed it like a Thanksgiving turkey? Checked. All of which should speed up the boarding process and make things better for everyone.

Repeat after me….align….incentives. This goes for your business or church too. If there’s something you’re trying to get people to do, just ensure the incentives are aligned. It’s much easier on everyone.

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