The popularity of my Married to an Engineer posts tells me that most of you have difficulty understanding how engineers think. As an engineer, I can tell you that difficulty is mutual. We try to design based on rational human beings and the truth is most of you are anything but rational. Okay that’s a little harsh, anything but rational by engineering standards. As Tesla’s driver assist keeps proving, there’s always been a conflict between human behavior and engineering logic.

Let’s take a very easy example, boarding an airplane. From an engineers point of view, it’s easy. Sure, start loading with First Class. They pay more and probably need more time to get comfortable. Once they’re loaded, we’ll ignore them.

If you think about, after loading First Class, the best way should be to load starting from the back. Everyone moves in, puts their luggage in place and takes a seat. There may be fumbling as people with window seats find their row already occupied but that’s limited by boarding in sections. Seems optimal.

Here’s where the conflict between human behavior and engineering logic becomes obvious. The airlines, knowing how fun this experience is, have introduced priority boarding. As we gain tier after tier of status, especially if we buy their credit card, we are allowed to feel slightly superior to all the other poor schmucks who have to wait until after we’ve boarded. Yes, this makes the window, aisle, thing even more of a mess but the thing that matters is by next trip I’ll have enough status to be in boarding group 7.

I think some genius at the airlines realized that the status thing wasn’t providing enough incentive and introduced baggage fees to push more luggage toward carry on. The rules for carry on are simple, one item for the overhead bin and one item for under your seat. I’m not going to say that the rules are ignored but the size of the overhead items seem to be ever expanding and well, it was only a suggestion that the second bag go under the seat. If you want foot room, both bags, your arctic expeditionary coat and whatever presents you bought in the airport go in the overhead.

Sure enough, by group 5, all the overhead bins are full. The man was a genius. No longer is status a matter of boarding a few minutes early. Now lack of status forces you to play musical luggage bin space with the very too real threat of having to check your carry-on bag anyway. If you have a tight connection this can be a killer.

Now you also get to some of the more frustrating quirks of human nature. There’s always that one person oblivious to the five hundred people standing behind them also waiting to get to a seat. This is when they decide now is the right time to unpack their overhead bag to find that magazine they need for takeoff. Personally, I’m convinced that person is a sociopath wanting to show everyone else how important they are.

This is not a behavior an engineer would anticipate.  If the airlines were really interested in speeding up the boarding process, they would issue cattle prods to every tenth passenger. That’s an engineering solution. Sorry, outside voice.

Having finally boarded everyone, we can relax until the unload procedure. Seems easy, unload from the front, grab your bag and leave. You didn’t think it would be that easy did you? Remember that game of musical bag space? It’s a given that many of the people need to go backwards to retrieve their bags. Don’t forget about the sociopaths finding it necessary to repack their bags before they can exit the plane. Of course they need the aisle space to accomplish this. It’s very frustrating to see what could be done and realize that human nature will never allow it to happen. See, conflict between human nature and engineering logic.

I realize I paint a very one sided view of modern air travel. Probably because I’ve been traveling way too much the last few months. Still it’s not all bad. On my last trip, I was stuck in the middle and the aisle seat was occupied by someone a lot nicer than I am. Since we were thirty minutes late to the terminal, her concern was for anyone with a short connection. Turns out the person in the window seat did have a short connection. She was very grateful when we allowed her into the aisle first. It’s a shame that no one else cared.

Undaunted by this, my companion continued to let everyone else go. She waited until someone several seats back decided to repack their luggage and her delay no longer provided an advantage. Altogether, I probably ended up staying staying several extra minutes on the plane.

Later, while waiting for my shuttle to show up, I realized my rush to depart was only a small part of my total time.  From a system’s point of view, the time I lost waiting on my fellow passengers was only an illusion. Surprise, maybe there’s something to this humanity thing after all.

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