Dumb Deplaning

So I just traveled to Portsmouth, VA for an experimental conference—in the sense that I don’t expect conferences of this type to prove productive, but maybe I should try at least once—in the unlikely event that there are any local Overcoming Bias readers who want to drive out to Portsmouth for a meeting on say the evening of the 20th, email me—anyway, I am struck, for the Nth time, how uncooperative people are in getting off planes.

Most people, as soon as they have a chance to make for the exit, do so—even if they need to take down luggage first. At any given time after the initial rush to the aisles, usually a single person is taking down luggage, while the whole line behind them waits. Then the line moves forward a little and the next person starts taking down their luggage.

In programming we call this a “greedy local algorithm”. But since everyone does it, no one seems to feel “greedy”.

How would I do it? Off the top of my head:

“Left aisle seats, please rise and move to your luggage. (Pause.) Left aisle seats, please retrieve your luggage. (Pause.) Left aisle seats, please deplane. (Pause.) Right aisle seats, please rise and move to your luggage...”

There are numerous other minor tweaks that this suggests, like seating people with tight connections near the front left aisle, or boarding passengers with window seats before passengers with middle and aisle seats.

But the main thing that strikes me is twofold:

First, everyone who stops to take down their luggage while everyone waits behind them—as opposed to waiting to rise until the aisle is clear—is playing a negative-sum game; the benefit to themselves is smaller than the total cost to all the others waiting in line.

Second, the airline has a motive to clear passengers quickly to reduce turnaround time. But the airline does not regulate the deplaning process. Even though it would be straightforward—defectors being readily spotted—and I don’t even see why it would be resented.

Am I missing something? Is there some mysterious Freakonomics-style explanation for this?

Heck, people usually manage to regulate themselves on worse cases than this. Most of the people blocking the aisle wouldn’t walk away with someone else’s purse. Are we just stuck in an equilibrium of mutual defection? You’d think people not in a rush would be willing to unilaterally wait until the aisle is clear before getting up, as it’s an inexpensive way to purchase a chance to feel quietly virtuous.

If an essentially friendly crowd of human beings can’t cooperate well enough to walk off a damned plane… now really, we should have more pride as a species than that.