Measured Against Reality

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Biology, Cheaters, and Southwest Airlines

I was flying this past week, and as such got to witness some interesting behavior that emerges at airports. I'm not in the least surprised that people do interesting things in airports, travel is naturally stressful, and the ridiculous and unnecessary (not to mention useless) policies just make it worse. As such it gives you a good chance to watch how people respond to various situations.

The two events I will detail are about cheating, in the sense of subverting an established order for personal gain at the expense of the other organisms that obey the order. Cheating is one of those incredibly interesting evolutionary problems (for a taste see this excellent post from the always-good R Ford Denison at This Week in Evolution, a must-read). Unfortunately I can't find any good reference pages with introductory material, so we'll soldier on without it (the Wikipedia article was woefully short, a knowledgeable biologist should improve it).

I was flying Southwest, and the lines had been formed for a while (for those who don't know Southwest divides the passengers into three groups, A B and C, which board in that order, first-come first-serve seating). A fairly attractive woman walked up and sat down in a chair that was near the line, but way ahead of the back. I knew right away that she was just going to cut the queue, well aware that no one would say anything about her cheating. When boarding started she sure enough did just that, and got onto the plane before about a dozen people who were in line before her.

That incident got me thinking about the politics of lines. If people don't actively create an incentive to follow the rules, then cheaters will prosper at the expense of the cheated, and soon the order will dissolve completely (at least evolutionarily, it needn't work that way in a social phenomenon, but I suspect it would). So there must be some kind of punishment for cheating, but I don't know what it is. I think that most people appreciate the order, and wouldn't want to disrupt it (for whatever reason, they are probably quite numerous). For the rest who don't cheat, perhaps the fear of being perceived as an asshole is great enough to overcome the slight gain of cheating, or perhaps those people fear some kind of retaliation. Those who do cheat must not care too much about anything but themselves, and must be confident that they will get away with their transgression (which is why I mentioned that the woman was attractive, had I--a college-aged male--attempted the same feat, the odds of success would be much worse, although they could still be in favor of success).

This is where I wish I had some handy links to computational biology sources, because computer simulation is often used to test the success of certain behaviors under certain conditions, and (from what I remember) cheaters usually exist, but in small numbers. There will be some kind of dynamic equilibrium where more cheaters make them less likely to succeed and vice-versa, which leads to a sinusoidal variation of behaviors within a population of "animals". Of course, reality is more complicated, but simulations are a useful (and interesting) approximation. I wonder if anyone has ever done a field-study on cheating in line at airports...

The second incident was quite different from the first. I had very little time to spare to make it to my flight after a connection, and when I arrived in line asked the last person in it (a fairly elderly woman) if this was the "A" line for the flight, and she replied that it was. We talked for a while (her daughter and son-in-law are Nuclear Physicists at Los Alamos), and after a while I noticed that her boarding pass distinctly said "B". She was in the wrong line! Never before had I seen such a thing. I wondered whether or not I should say something, and I decided not to. I really wanted to see how the attended taking the passes would react. When she handed him the ticket he didn't even notice. She got right onto the plane, probably 30 places ahead of where she would have if she had been in the correct line. I'm sure she got a much better seat because of her cheating.

I began to wonder if she made a mistake. I doubted it. I had specifically asked if it was the A line, and she picked up her bags when they announced that the A's were boarding. While she was old she didn't appear dopey, but (once again) I guessed that she figured that if she was called on her cheating she could appeal to her appearance and pretend to be dopey. Perhaps she knew that they wouldn't even check.

But that got me wondering about how Southwest prevents cheaters. The agent seemed oblivious enough that anyone could do it, and it would completely subvert the Southwest model of boarding. I don't know if they have any policies in place to prevent that kind of cheating, but they didn't seem to. It is possible that the old lady got permission to be in that line ahead of time, but I doubt it; she would have just preboarded, getting on before everyone, instead of just before the rest of the B's (and a handful of A's). This is the kind of cheating that the rest of the people have an active interest in preventing since it entirely breaks the system on which they depend. However, I suppose most people aren't so unscrupulous as to board before they're supposed to; our natural reverence for rules and order probably makes most people reject the thought out of hand. But it only takes a few to throw the system into chaos...

This has been long enough, and those are my thoughts on cheaters and cheating. This is one of those areas that's very interesting and almost certainly fertile for research, although perhaps not in airports. I have some more thoughts from my trip, many inspired by Sagan, to come in the following days. Stay tuned!

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  • First-come first-serve seating? That's the silliest thing I've ever heard of. Thank goodness I've never flown Southwest before, and now that I know this I probably never will. I like to know where I'm going to sit, either an aisle or a window and preferably an exit row. And I'm always the last person in line. No sense sitting on an airplane longer when it isn't taking off until everyone is on.

    But even on airlines with "traditional" seating, I see the same sort of cheating to get on the plane quicker. I've never understood it - in the case of first-come first-serve seating I can understand why you wouldn't want to be the last person on the plane. So it might not simply be the case of people wanting a better seat, but for some unknown reason to me, want to just get on the plane before everyone else.

    By Anonymous N. Johnson, at 9:53 AM, June 20, 2007  

  • I think I can shed some light on n.johnson's question. The scarce resource we are competing for here is not seats but overhead bin space. If you can get your bag(s) into the bin above then you will have a more footroom below. I have often walked onto a plane to find that the bins have completely filled up already.

    If you really want an airline pillow and blanket it's better to get on earlier, since they don't ever seem to have enough of those for everybody.

    By Blogger Martin, at 11:56 AM, June 20, 2007  

  • Martin, that's an interesting thought, I hadn't considered overhead space as a potential resource.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 11:58 AM, June 20, 2007  

  • Interestingly, I recently flew Southwest and also noticed somebody trying to cheat. An attractive young woman with a "B" boarding card got into the back of the A line. She didn't really hide what she was doing from the other people at the end of the line (presumably because we weren't the ones being cheated).

    But when she got up to the front of the line, the attendant told her that it wasn't time yet for the "B" group. She tried to finagle her way into the front of the "B" group, and the attendant told her to go to the back of the line.

    I was pretty satisfied to see the cheater put in her place (though she didn't face any tangible punishment -- just whatever humiliation she might've felt).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:23 PM, June 20, 2007  

  • Anonymous, I think that appearance is an important factor for being able to cheat, and exactly how it plays out could be quite interesting. I'm glad that woman got her comeuppance, perhaps she won't try to cheat any more.

    Although I'm frankly surprised that I haven't seen it more often, given that I fly every few months. I really wonder if some sociologist could actually study this, because the results could be quite fascinating.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 7:28 PM, June 20, 2007  

  • Since people mostly want to board early to get space for carry-on luggage, airlines could reduce this problem by not losing luggage. For interesting information on the cost of deterring cheating in humans, try a Google Scholar search for "altruistic punishment."

    By Anonymous Ford, at 11:25 AM, June 22, 2007  

  • So, I have two bits of one story that both have to do with your story. My boyfriend and I fly frequently together. His name is common, mine is not. As such, I am almost always in boarding group A, and he in B (his name being on the watch list...). Normally, we wait until the last minute, I get on the plane and save him a seat right next to me, of course, and he goes to the back of the B line. This last time, however, I decided to just ask the attendant if it was ok if he just boarded with me. I was shocked that the attendant had enough common sense (it seems to be rare these days) to say, "Yeah, just board together." My bf ends up in the same exact seat either way. However, when we went through the line, the attendant did notice and say something to my bf before remembering that he had previously gave him the go-ahead. I thought that was actually good, ie that he was actually paying attention and trying to weed out cheaters from the line.

    At this same time, we experienced another interesting phenomenon. We don't mind sitting on the floor, as my bf usually likes to plug in his laptop. So, we took our place, quite close to the front of the line, but I made sure that we allowed enough walking space between us and the people in front of us, because if I had sat right behind them, I would have been squarely in the way for anyone wanting to walk through. So...about 15 mins later, some lady walks up, (while the line has gotten quite long, mind you, mostly with people in the seats that they provide for the "line") and plops herself right down in the gap that I had left. Now, people are forced to try and step over me, my bf, and our stuff. AND, everyone keeps giving US looks, like it's our fault that they had to step over us. I wanted to say something to that woman really bad, but I didn't. I probably should have.

    Finally, the limited resource for us is the emergency exit row. We love to sit there because it has about double the space and we don't ever use the overhead bins, so that's not an issue for us.

    Anyway, just my little SW tidbits.

    By Blogger Terra, at 8:24 AM, June 27, 2007  

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