Flying Frustrations

November 21, 2011 BY danariely

A few days ago I woke up at 5:00am to drive to the airport for a trip to Chicago. I got to the airport on time, went through security and arrived at my gate with time to spare. I went through all the motions of boarding the plane, waiting to take off, and finally leaving the ground. As we were in the air, we were informed of inclement weather in Chicago and told that we would have to land somewhere else (South Bend, Indiana). So we were diverted to wait for the weather in Chicago to clear up. When the weather eventually improved, we refueled and finally took off. I missed an important lecture and felt that I had wasted most of my day.

When I think back to my day of traveling, I can’t help but cringe at the thought that my expected two-hour trip took six hours. And even though I have taken many flights longer than six hours in the past without feeling bitter, this experience was particularly annoying for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with the nagging feeling of idleness that I experienced when I was stuck on the plane on the ground, just waiting. And this reminds me of a lesson on the design of air travel: There once was a clever engineer who noticed that the carousels for luggage are spaced at different distances from different gates – some farther and some closer to where the passengers were deplaning. And this engineer redesigned the allocation of carousels such that they minimized the distance to their gate, and therefore minimized the amount of walking that passengers would have to do to pick up their luggage. A few airports implemented this highly efficient system and patted themselves on the back. They were very pleased with their improvement – that is, until people started complaining.

Of course, everything that the engineer predicted was true. By refining the assignment of carousels to match up with their corresponding gates, people had to walk less and could get to their luggage faster. The problem was that this system worked too well, and passengers were beating their luggage to the carousels. When they arrived, they had to twiddle their thumbs while they waited for their luggage to catch up with them.

Think about these two ways to get your luggage: With the original airport design, you walk ten minutes, but when you finally get to the carousel, your baggage gets there a minute after you (taking 11 minutes). In the other, you walk three minutes, but when you arrive you have to wait five minutes for your luggage (taking 8 minutes). The second scenario is faster, but people become more annoyed with the process because they have more idle time. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr. noted, “I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely.”

The “good news” is that airports quickly reverted to their former (inefficient) system, and we now walk farther to our suitcases just to avoid the frustrations of idleness.

Now, it’s one thing to waste time, but it’s particularly bothersome when you feel like you are backtracking. In my case of flying to Chicago, the trip took a detour that sent me in away from my final destination. This is the second reason that my flight experience was so irritating — it included an element of backtracking in the opposite direction of my goal.

Let’s think about this idea with another example. Imagine that you are taking the train from point A to point B.  You can choose between two paths, both taking four hours but with one key difference: In Trip 1, you take the slow train from point A to B.  In Trip 2, you take the fast train, but the train passes B and continues for another hour until it gets to C, and then you change trains and backtrack for an hour to B.  It turns out that the second approach is more irritating, even though we should care only about the time and not the direction of progress.

My flight had both of these annoying principles, idleness and backtracking. We wasted lots of time, and we were diverted in the opposite direction.  Now, I am positive that this will not be the last time that I experience these travel elements, so the question is how I will deal with these irritations in the future.  To overcome the feeling of idleness, I can try finding something to make me feel that the time is spent productively (maybe I should start making lists of things to do and use idle time to manage these lists on my phone). And what about overcoming the annoyance of backtracking?  Maybe ignorance really is bliss — and the only solution is not to think about the route that we are taking.