How To Get People To Board A Plane Without Crowding The Gate

by

True story:

When it was time to board my plane at Schiphol Airport (Amsterdam) last week, the desk agent came on the microphone and said:

“We will now start the boarding process with Zone 1. If you’re not in Zone 1, we ask you to please stay seated in the boarding area until your zone is called. Thank you for your cooperation.”

What happened?

Astonishingly, no one bum rushed the gate like it was a wartime ration truck.

Why? What was different in Amsterdam than everywhere else on earth? (insert marijuana joke here). We’ll get back to that.

Let’s start with the psychology of boarding planes and why, even if you had a group of passengers with no carry-ons, they would still try to board with the patience and calm of a cat dropped in a bathtub.

Being Situated = Being Sophisticated

You feel cooler thumbing through the in-flight magazine, straight up dominating your armrest, having (semi-gracefully) already figured out how to grab your pillow, part the folded seat belt, spin around, and manage not to sit on the water bottle you brought on. You now silently get to gaze and judge the shuffling procession of humanity in the aisle, as they squint at their boarding passes searching for their real estate, having to slalom around people too uncoordinated to remove their jackets out of the flow of everyone else.

Losers, you think. All of you. Look how situated I already am and you’re still looking for your seat.

The later we board the plane, the more eyes that will watch our every move and the more comments those eyes will pelt us with. Boy, he clashes. Nice hair, weirdo. I can’t believe she would wear those sweatpants on a plane! Could you buy bigger headphones?

Our silent thoughts are really quite mean, perverse and horrifying. And we all know that. So given the chance to avoid 180 stares and the silent thoughts that go with it, we will.

Overbooking Paranoia

We have this weird fear that if they overbooked the plane (as they so often say they do), we might get booted off in lieu of someone else. We don’t really believe we’re on this flight until we are actually sitting in a seat on this flight.

Note to airlines: If you want people to board in an orderly fashion, do not first say that the flight is overbooked, because you’re then going to turn your perfectly reserved-seated plane into a life raft on a sinking ship.

First Is Better

Society has created a status of being first, even with something that has no logical reason for having it, such as, getting on a plane. After all, this isn’t like blasting through an EZ-Pass toll booth on your way to vacation bliss while another guy scrounges around for change on the floor of his ‘96 Pontiac Sunfire in bumper-to-bumper traffic. No one’s going anywhere until everyone’s going somewhere.

But because everyone crowds the gate like a bunch of zombies crowding a fence fromThe Walking Dead, getting on the plane first has become a badge of privilege and a way to reduce stress and hysteria.

Which is why the call to board Zone 1/Business/Priority sounds like:

“All important people, please board the plane first. The rest of you low-life, no-direction following members of the travel loony bin, you’ll get your chance to board the plane in whatever savage manner swine in higher zones board planes. Thank you.”

This makes the rest of us defensive. We want people to know that we are travel savvy.

We never hover the boarding area! We’re not some disheveled disorderly who’s always in sweatpants, slugging water right before the x-ray machine, forgetting to remove the laptop from the bag, always asking, “My shoes too?”, looking surprised when their belt sets off the alarm, muttering something to the desk agent about changing seats, missed connections or asking how long the flight is…No! We’re seasoned travelers, damnit! We give those other people weird looks so that everyone else knows what we think of sad and lowly lot.

Sigh. That’s a lot to contend with.

So how was one boarding announcement able to quell these ridiculous personal fears/drivers and what can this teach you about getting things done in your life?

There were three psychological mechanisms at work in the Amsterdam announcement, and it’s best that we all become familiar with them as we try to understand how to convince people to take the actions we want.

1) We Respond To Clarity

I did some research and found out that the most utilized gate announcement by airlines is the following:

“We will now start the boarding process with Zone 1. We ask that you please only board when your zone is called. Thank you.”

The announcement in Amsterdam was:

“We will now start the boarding process with Zone 1. If you’re not in Zone 1, we ask you to please stay seated in the boarding area until your zone is called. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Can you see the difference?

Amsterdam: “…we ask that you please stay seated until…”
Everywhere else: “…we ask that you please only board the plane when…”

Stay seated vs. Board when

They might feel the same and surely they mean the same thing but when it comes to instructions, ambiguity is like water searching for a crack. It will find a way to drip down to the bellows of your directive and wreak havoc on your intents.

If I’m standing next to the boarding area, blocking everyone else, I’m still not boarding the plane until my zone is called. I’m following orders and therefore, am a good person acting within the rules of day.

However, if I don’t stay seated when politely asked, well then now I’m just being rude. The best websites and bosses are extremely clear and direct with the actions they want you to take and you typically gladly take them.

And that leads into phenomenon #2.

2) We Like Being Told What To Do

So long as the directive is clear,

It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.

So says Stanley Milgram, one of the most famous social psychologists.

A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

So says Mark Earls, author of Herd: How To Change Mass Behavior.

While some people can abuse this knowledge (see: Hitler), there’s a reason it works.

Authority replaces conscience so that your conscience can focus on other more important stuff like planning your day, reading, chatting. You don’t need to waste energy wondering when you should board a plane. (More on how and why authority works and what some of the negative consequences of blindly following authority figures are, here.

The voice of the gate agent was friendly but firm. She sounded like she knew what she was talking about and she was asking us nicely to follow a simple rule. The expectation was set: stay seated until your zone was called. You actually didn’t have to do anything other than what you already were doing (sitting) and you would be following orders. Sounds easy enough.

Now for the third, and most powerful factor.

It’s the desk agent’s clear authority that makes us feel comfortable waiting patiently but it’s that everyone else also stays seated that keeps us seated. It’s called:

3) Social Proofing

Robert Cialdini defined it best.

One means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct.

In other words, the number one reason anyone does anything is because someone else is doing it.

We take our visual and behavioral cues from our peers around us. And especially in a flight situation, we’re going to be around these people for hours, we might even have to sit next to them, so we don’t want to look like someone who doesn’t know how to abide by the social rules.

So if a group of 5-10 people wanted to disregard the gate agent’s requests, and instead, hover over the gate, that might be enough to trump the authority and clarity message and spark a domino effect of everyone slowly getting up and moving to the gate before the correct time.

You wear what you wear not because you independently think it’s what looks best on you, you wear it because everyone else wears something similar. We like fitting in.

What Does This Have To Do With You?

If you want someone to do something, just be explicit and direct.

No: “Email me if think you might want to work with me.”
Yes: “Not sure how we could work together? Fill out this 5-minute questionnaire and I’ll get back to with the possibilities…”

If you want people to behave a certain way in a private Facebook group, be specific with your requests:

No: “Share what you’re working on with the group and get feedback from everyone else.”
Yes: “If you want to get some input on your designs, share them with the group and ask for specific feedback. But be sure to also respond and give input to others who post. A good rule of thumb is for every request you make, give some feedback and support to 3 other people.”

Now if only we can get the desk agent’s script from Amsterdam in the hands of every airport, we wouldn’t have to pretend we were buying a magazine, looking at our phone, or acting like we didn’t know what zone was boarding when in fact we were just trying to get closer to the gate, like everyone else.