The Tragedy of the Commons and Business Travel

As someone who travels quite a bit now, I get to observe all sorts of human behavior, whether it be on airplanes, in airports, or in various restaurants, hotel lobbies, etc. Recently, I was on board a Southwest flight and came to realize the downside of the typical business travel advice columns. One of the “big” things business travelers are told over and over again is to never check a bag, no matter what. That’s all well and good, and there is certainly some advantages to that. You get through the airport quicker, you don’t run the risk of your bag getting lost, etc. The problem, that I was made so keenly aware of that evening, is when everyone on the plane takes that advice.

This being a weekday evening flight out of Minneapolis, pretty much everyone on the plane was a business traveler, and thus everyone had both a rolling carry-on bag, and a briefcase/laptop bag. Even on an airline where you don’t have to pay extra to check a bag, hardly anyone did. The flight, being full, naturally ran out of storage space long before everyone got on board, leading to delays while passengers looked over and over for a spot to put their bag, eventually giving up and having to gate check their bag. The flight left the gate a good 25 minutes late, all because it took extra time to get people, and their carry-ons boarded, and arrived in Chicago late, causing a lot of rushing and stress as people hurried to make tight connections. Not to mention the folks who had to gate-check their bag now having to stand in a bitterly cold Chicago evening waiting for their bag to come off the plane.

Watching this, it occurred to me that there are lots of times when good advice turns out to be pretty damaging once it becomes common practice. Here you had a plane full of people, almost all of whom were following the “never check a bag” advice, but creating more of a problem for the entire group because of it. I think of it as being similar to the advice to go to a certain place because it’s less crowded and noisy as the more well-known spot. Of course, once a certain tipping point number of people follow this advice, it no longer holds true. The out of the way place is now the over-crowded and noisy place. I’m sure all the business travel articles extolling the virtue of not checking a bag are envisioning flights with a mixture of vacationers, families, and some business people. When that mix gets out of whack, and you wind up with everyone doing the same thing, it falls apart on itself pretty quickly. And this being air travel, when one part of the process falls apart on itself, causing a delay of even a short period of time, that can get carried forward and escalate quickly.

Think of all those fine parents who want to avoid risks associated with kids walking to school or perhaps being bullied on a school bus. Have you been outside an elementary school at drop-off or pick-up time? There are consequences when everyone follows the same advice, in that case, traffic congestion that probably creates as many risks as it mitigates.

It’s all well and good to think you’ve found a behavior that will get you an advantage over others, but I think it’s also good to re-evaluate that from time to time in light of how many people are now following the same advice. If there’s one certainty about human behavior, it’s that people adapt and change all the time. What was good advice a few years ago may no longer be applicable to the current situation. Not checking a bag may still be a decent plan, but you’ll need to understand that sometimes, when everyone is doing the same thing you are, and the infrastructure can’t handle that, it’s going to create problems for everyone.

Besides, if we all did the same exact thing all the time, the entertainment factor from my time in airports would go down quite significantly. 😉

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