Preferences, Planning, and Trade-offs: Musings from the Airport
By Art Carden
I’m pretty risk-averse when it comes to travel, so I probably get to the airport earlier than I need to. That was the case this morning: I was booked on a 6:45 AM flight from Birmingham to Atlanta and arrived at the gate in time to catch the 5:30 AM flight. Since I have Super-Fancy Gold Medallion status with Delta, I had the option of taking the earlier flight. Space was available, but I would’ve had to check my carry-on bag to my final destination (Durham, where I’m spending the next 24 hours or so with EconLib friend, regular EconTalk guest, and fellow Wash U econ PhD Michael Munger).
It was a tough call. The good Dr. Munger is meeting me at the airport, so I didn’t want to have to worry about finding a luggage carousel and face the admittedly-minimal risk of losing my bag. I can also eat breakfast in Birmingham just as easily as I can in Atlanta, there’s less hustle and bustle here, and I probably would’ve had to sit closer to the back of the plane on the earlier flight. Of course, a flight in the hand might have been worth more than a high-probability flight at 6:45, which perhaps gives the lie to my earlier claim of risk aversion. If the next flight is delayed, I might have to make other arrangements…
That said, I’d have taken them up on it had I not had to check my bag. Hence, I’m writing this from the Good People Brewing Co. at the airport in Birmingham, where I just finished a tasty breakfast of bacon and coffee.
There’s an important lesson about the importance of markets in this, even in a sector as heavily regulated as air travel. Airlines have the flexibility to offer a wide array of products and contracts to their customers. They have powerful incentives to figure out what I want. F.A. Hayek called competition “a discovery procedure,” and in Law, Legislation, and Liberty he pointed out that one of the great things about what he called “the catallaxy” is that it allows people to pursue their own goals, satisfy their own preferences (subject to their ability to help others do the same), and make their own choices in the face of the trade-offs life presents. There’s room for everybody in the catallaxy. People who value flexibility, attractive route schedules, and niceties like periodic upgrades, priority check-in, and better seating can travel almost exclusively with one airline and accumulate sufficient time in the air to get these perks. People who only care about price are free to hunt for bargains.
We can’t know a priori which arrangement is “best.” The process itself generates the information and feedback we need in order to make better choices in the future. As of about 6 AM, I’m not regretting my choice to stay in Birmingham and catch the 6:45 AM flight. That might change, but I hope it doesn’t.