27 January 2012

Bounded rationality and the Ryanair boarding process

I’m tall. 1.93 metres or 6 feet 4 inches, although being very very old, I've probably started to shrink a bit. Anyway, when I fly, I like to have a decent amount of leg room, which typically means sitting in the exit row.

On most flights, this is a matter of outrageous fortune. Last time I booked a transatlantic flight, Lufthansa allowed me to choose my seat online, but although the flight was 7 months away, the exit row seats had all gone. (On the return trip, I asked the check-in person at the airport very nicely, as an afterthought, if there were any exit row seats available; he looked, smiled, tore up my boarding card, gave me a new one, winked, and said, "Don't tell anybody". I got 6 hours of sleep on a 9-hour flight, which is a record. Presumably somebody got bumped...)

Now, like a lot of people in Europe, the airline I fly with most often is Ryanair. For some reason, people boarding Ryanair flights do not head straight for the exit rows. I'm not sure why this is - maybe they like to be able to put things under the seat in front, or perhaps Ryanair passengers customers don't think that they will want to open the door in an emergency - but I'm not complaining. I usually get a "long leg room" seat, and if I don't, well, it's usually only a 75-minute flight anyway.

I could, of course, more or less guarantee an exit row seat by paying €5 to be first on the plane (or rather, at FKB, first on the bus which takes you to the plane, so you probably aren't first on the plane since you're stuck in the depths of the bus). But that really does feel like an extravagance. (Incidentally, I'm not one of those people who complains about all the "extras" on a Ryanair ticket. I've been paying for my own air fares for thirty years, and I would rather pay one of the nice Mr O'Leary's itemised bills than take a nice, gentle, all-inclusive hammering for three times the price, which is what I had to do until he and the equally nice Mr. Stelios came along.)

You see, the thing I hate most about boarding a Ryanair flight - or any other plane, for that matter - is pointlessly standing for 20 minutes in a queue at the gate. My place on the plane is reserved. If I'm travelling with Mrs. Brown, she's quite happy not to sit next to me while I strike up laboured spontaneous conversations with those around me, so we don't need two seats together. I want to get on last, preferably not even waiting at the foot of the steps of the plane. Fortunately, everyone else seems to be prepared to queue up for me, despite getting almost no benefit out of it.

There's now another good reason to be last. As of two weeks ago, Ryanair have changed the rules about the exit row. You now have to pay €10 to sit there (for that price, you also get the "priority boarding" option). At first, I was tempted to join my fellow passengers in their mutterings of "robbing bar stewards", as they were politely prevented from sitting in the good seats by the long-suffering cabin crew, and I'm certainly not going to be paying €10 extra for a short flight; but then, I just booked a flight to the Canaries, and €10 to avoid four and a half hours of cramp, and/or the urge to fight past people to get to row 16, is well worth it.

This raises an interesting question, however. The exit rows are not in a separate cabin, and €10 is not a lot of money compared to the price of the ticket. That means that Ryanair will sell every single one of the 189 seats on the plane if they can, even if nobody pays the premium for legroom. So what happens when a full planeload of people get on when 18 of the seats are reserved?

I got chatting to a cabin crew member at the bus stop while waiting for the coach up to Stansted. She told me that their instructions are to keep the exit row seats for last. (They don't always know exactly how many passengers will turn up, so it makes sense to protect the value of the €10 upgrade by not giving these seats away until the have to.) So, if you want to have a chance of an exit row seat, wait until everyone else has boarded ("After you" - "No, after you"), and hope the plane is full.

I suppose that there could be some unintended consequences of this slightly perverse incentive to stay sitting down, rather than boarding the plane like a co-operative citizen. I intend to continue to be among the last to board the plane anyway.

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