I've been reading a book called Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt, which is well researched and fascinating essay on how people behave in traffic--cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. He opens the book with a question: When faced with a sign announcing a lane drop ahead, is it better to merge early or merge late? I'll get back that in a minute.
Meanwhile, what I've learned in this book I have been able to apply directly to airport security lines, which I have been negotiating frequently due to a heavy travel schedule. There are three observations I'd make about how people work against their own interests and, because of cluelessness and lack of knowledge and courtesy, make it worse for the rest of us.
The Fat Captain--This happened to me when leaving Oklahoma City at Oh-Dark-Thirty last week. Only one security line was open and a flight crew, of course, butted to the front of the line. No complaint from me. They should be given this courtesy, but they should return it to their customers by being as minimally disruptive as possible.
So this overweight four striper is too fat to duck under the ribbon barrier so one of the TSA workers has to interrupt her scanning and unhitch the ribbon for him. But rather than merging into the line at the point where the plastic bins were, he waddled right up the baggage scanner conveyor, so the passengers had to pass four bins to him. He fumbled for his laptop and got that in the bin. Off to the body scanner. Forgot to remove his cellphone. Back to the belt to get another bin, jamming up two or three passengers. On his second run, he forgot to remove his shoes. Back to the conveyor, jamming up two more people.
Now I'm not saying this removal of the shoes and scanning is a good thing, but fer Chrisakes, we all know how it works by now. Next time, Skipper, how about having a cup of Joe before show time?
Overhead Hog-- Here's something I didn't know. The rule about putting one bag in the overhead and another under the seat isn't a rule at all. It's a policy and it isn't enforced, according to a flight attendant I asked. I asked because the jerk in the seat next to me felt it was his privilege to put both his bags in the overhead, denying me space for my one, which wound up 12 rows ahead of me. I only learned about this when he deplaned, dragging all of his crap out of my space.
This is a classic trashing of the freedom of the commons, which works splendidly for everyone when people take what they need and leave the rest, but doesn't work at all when they don't. It's called personal agency and responsibility and it grows ever rarer, even though its application benefits everyone.
Aisle Idiots--I boarded a flight in Newark and settled into the very last row. Standing next to me was a flight attendant on the PA trying to get people to step out of the aisle and into their seat rows so people could get past. We had a rapidly approaching departure slot and they were trying to get the thing pushed back. (Really, they just wanna get the doors closed and move the airplane so the two airplanes waiting for the gate can move in.)
She laughed when I asked if she would mind if I brought a bullhorn aboard next time and shouted from the back, "What the #$@% part of step out of the aisle didn't you understand?"
"We say it over and over again," she told me, "but people just ignore it." This is, of course, working counter interest, because ultimately, the pushback took forever and we got into a long conga line.
And last, the merge thing. You serve the freedom of the commons more efficiently by merging as late as possible, because even though you whiz by the early mergers, you're using all the available pavement for longer, so everyone moves faster.
Too bad security lines don't work like that.