top of page

What I Learned From Airlines About The Science Of Compliance

As a frequent traveller, I’m always intrigued by how airlines try to influence our decision making. Since becoming interested in behavioural science, I tend to notice them a lot more. Which means that I pay a lot more attention to the ones that annoy me or I don’t think work.

Like the screen in the airport lounge telling me that my flight is boarding; which results in me rushing to the gate only to discover they haven’t even begun the process. It’s a trick that works once. Because the next time I’m sat in the same airport, I’ll factor in that benevolent deception in my calculation of how much time I’ll need…

Or the small yellow tag which British Airways staff are asked to attach to short-haul hand luggage which is small enough to fit under the seat in front. Having the tag attached offers passengers the apparent reward of having their bag “Guaranteed on board” as long as they comply with the requirement to put it under the seat in front of them. “What’s wrong with that?” I hear you ask.

On the one hand, it’s a simple technique designed to ensure that the space available to store hand luggage is maximised by seeking to incentivise people to use the space under the seats.

On the other, it’s an irritating reminder of the fact that you have to pay extra to put luggage in the hold; which is a major reason why there is so much hand luggage on board in the first place. And don’t get me started on those times when an agent who has just confirmed with me that I’m sat in an emergency exit seat and therefore need to comply with specific requirements (like not putting anything under the seat in front) then insists on adding the tag that tells me to do precisely the opposite.

Another pet hate of mine is being bussed between plane and terminal. I presume it’s caused by the fact that there isn’t enough capacity at the airport or the airline hasn’t paid enough to use a proper gate. What I’d (possibly unfairly) classify as poor planning or false economy.

Surprisingly some people prefer the bus. Or rather, have been persuaded that it’s a better option. In this Spectator magazine article Behavioural Science maestro, Rory Sutherland enthuses about a pilot that announced the fact they’d be transferring to the terminal by bus by highlighting the fact you don’t have to walk. He concludes that:

The reason we hated being bused to the terminal was not because it was intrinsically bad, but because nobody knew of any redeeming advantages to help us see it in a positive light. Once we knew there was an upside, we were free to minimise the pain of cognitive dissonance by choosing to see the bus as a convenience and not an annoyance.

I’ve heard a similar announcement to the one Rory did on a few occasions; but rather than being impressed by it, I was incredibly annoyed that someone was seeking to make a virtue out of necessity. It’s right that a bus means less walking. But it also means more faffing around as we wait for everyone to board and then stand in discomfort for what seems like an eternity. Plus if you’ve got a seat that allows quick disembarkation, any advantage you had is eroded by the busathon. Even if the bus gets you there quicker, it doesn’t feel quicker. I already spend enough time being shepherded around, that I’d prefer the feeling of being in control that I get when I’m walking through a terminal. It also keeps my Fitbit incredibly happy.

I should add that Rory also came up with the lovely idea of diverting funding from a proposed high-speed rail link into improving customer experience on the existing one. Tongue firmly in cheek, he proposed having models serve champagne as a means of making the journey more “bearable”; rather than make it shorter, spend the money on making it more pleasurable. I’m not sure you’d get many investors backing the plan, but I like his thinking…

The difference in perception between Rory and I when it comes to being bussed from plane to terminal illustrates an interesting point. I suspect that I fly more frequently than he does and I know “the form”. Which is another way of saying that I’m rather set in my ways. I’ve got my airport routine down to a fine art and the last thing I want is for that to be disrupted. Ironically, in an environment where I’m constantly being told what to do, I’ve developed a behaviour pattern that allows me a sense of control. I might not be able to do anything about air traffic delays, but I know how to efficiently expedite my own passage through airports.

So, I will automatically use the space under the seat in front of me to store items if I possibly can. Because I know that the overhead bins are likely to fill up and there’s a risk that my things get moved further down the plane, when the inevitable luggage in locker reshuffle takes place, thus impeding my ability to exit swiftly.

I know that flights board well before the time they take off and that some gates are a long way from the security checkpoint. I’m even sad enough to have an airport map app which I use to check if I’m in a terminal I’m unfamiliar with. So I’m far less likely to hold up a plane by wasting luggage space or being late to the gate.

All of which makes me suspect that all of the behavioural science techniques the airlines are deploying probably aren’t really targetted at me. After all, I’m already massively compliant. They’re intended for the less frequent traveller; the kind who goes through security having been asked to empty their pockets sets off the alarm and then looks bewildered when it is explained to them that it’s the set of keys they’ve kept on them that’s caused it.

Or the person I saw recently at Berlin Tegel airport (where they do security at the gate). who had gone through security and then asked to be let back out again to get food. Upon returning, they were genuinely astonished that a second security scan was necessary (“but you’ve already checked me”). These people probably do need (not so) subtle nudging in the right direction.

Its a fairly obvious lesson when we think about deploying behavioural science techniques: what works for one subset of the population, might not work for everyone. Overexposure to particular techniques is likely to confirm the old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt”. The question for airlines is whether there is a greater good achieved by annoying people like me who, by being frequent flyers, are also likely to generate more revenue for them. I suspect the answer is that it is because these techniques are largely trying to influence behaviour that makes flying more punctual and safer. Which logically has to also be in my interest.

It also poses a dilemma for airlines when they work out how to get us to pay attention to safety briefings. This is harder than one might think, as Tali Sharot explains in her book The Influential Mind:

You would think the passengers would be a captive audience; they are literally stuck in their seats with nowhere to go. Yet a quick look around will confirm that most people would rather entertain themselves than pay attention to the crew. You may argue that we have all been through the drill before: seat belt, oxygen mask, life jacket, exit door—we get it. But the fact of the matter is that different airplanes have different safety features. In fact, even if you have flown on the exact same aircraft before, you should listen closely. This is because rehearsing the safety procedure just before takeoff reactivates the required sequence in your brain, which makes it more likely that you will execute the actions automatically if needed. In a state of emergency, quick reactions are crucial.

Sharot explains that the way airlines deal with this:

Preflight safety demonstration videos now include everything from models break-dancing in bathing suits to cute cartoons and stand-up comedy. Many highlight enchanting travel destinations. And people watch them, because they fulfill at least one of the principles that make people want to pay attention: they induce positive emotions.

Of course, that only works up to a point. We can only watch the same video a certain number of times before it becomes less compelling. So airlines need to produce new content to stimulate us. On that, a “very well done” to Air New Zealand who consistently and regularly create engaging content for their safety briefings and a “take note” to British Airways who have now been running one involving celebrities for rather too long.

I must admit to being somewhat inattentive to briefings. But I do check where my nearest emergency exit is and whether I’ve got a life jacket under my seat. That’s because I once went on a British Airways safety course where I experienced a cabin being filled with smoke in a simulated emergency. It’s pretty scary, even when you know it’s a drill and the smoke is only white…

The interesting question for those of us that want to use behavioural science to manage Compliance, is how we maintain the interest and cooperation of those who already know what they need to do, whilst influencing the behaviours of those who don’t. If we want to succeed then we need to persuade but not irritate.

A challenge, that pales into insignificance when we think about the subset of people who think they know what they need to do but actually don’t; the Dunning Kruger passengers. Precisely the people that will pose the biggest risk in an emergency. Naturally, I’ve concluded that I’m not one of those. Which is somewhat naive. After all, if I was one, then I definitely wouldn’t be aware of it..


bottom of page