Irrationality and Flight Change Decisions

Beer at Charlotte AirportAs I write this, I’m relaxing while sitting in a nice NASCAR-themed restaurant in the Charlotte airport having a beer, catching up on email and listening to “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones.

Fifteen minutes ago the outcome could have been different but not, perhaps, better. I’m en route to San Francisco this afternoon and ended up here by accident, when my original flights were delayed and the surprisingly nice USAir agents kindly rerouted me through Charlotte. Since I arrived here early, I wondered if I could get on the 4:40 flight instead of the 6:10.

I went to the USAir customer service desk and inquired about jumping the earlier flight. However, before I got there I thought it through. If  I could get out to San Francisco earlier for free, I’d do it. If it was inconvenient or cost more money, I wouldn’t.

It turns out that the change fee would have been $75 and I would have had to sit in a middle seat. Now, had I selected that option I know I would have been miserable. I hate flying anyway and being crammed into a middle seat on a cross-country flight isn’t something I look forward to. In addition, I would have spent the whole evening thinking “I spent another $75 for this?” Then, I would have landed and gone to the hotel only to find myself too tired to go out to eat and paying extra money for mediocre hotel food.

It would have made my 30 hours on the ground in San Francisco, a city I really like, totally horrible.

Instead, I’ve saved $75, gained a couple of hours to do a bit of work and had a beer and some decent pork BBQ sliders. Definitely a win.

But what would have happened had I not considered that original decision heuristic before talking to the agent? Is it possible I would have said “sure” and jumped on the $75, middle seat hell ride? I think I may have.

So it looks like I’ve made the perfectly rational decision then. After all, I’m perfectly happy with the outcome and happy enough to write this post. But the outcome I’m living right now is just one of many possible outcomes. Am I just convincing myself that hanging around in the airport for an extra hour and thirty minutes is better than the alternative?

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much on behavioral economics. However, from today’s unplanned observations, it seems to me like a way to be happier with your decisions–even spur-of-the-moment ones–is to take at least a minute or two to consider a couple of different outcomes and think about which one is more palatable to you. It makes it more likely that the path you do take, even if the outcome is slightly sub-obtimal, will still be enjoyable to you.

Plus, they’re playing Elvis Costello on the restaurant PA system, so this must be the place for me!

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