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Posts Tagged ‘Incentives’

How to get people onto planes is an interesting topic. It is a process most of us go through with some regularity and it is hard not to think that there has to be a better way. There are many articles in the popular press explaining that in many ways airlines are doing it wrong (for an example, see this recent Quartz article). Academics like publishing papers on new methodologies that purport to work better — even if their approach is at best whimsical (would an airline assign seats based on who has carry on luggage?). But what if the secret to a smooth boarding process was really in the gate area not in the jet bridge or plane aisle?

That essentially is the premise of some work reported in the Wall Street Journal (In Tests, Scientists Try to Change Behaviors, Jul 28).

At the Copenhagen airport, Dr. Hansen recently deployed a team of three young researchers to mill about a gate in terminal B. The trio was dressed casually in jeans and wore backpacks. They blended in with the passengers, except for the badges they wore displaying airport credentials, and the clipboards and pens they carried to record how the boarding process unfolds. …

The researchers are mapping out gate-seating patterns for a total of about 500 flights. Some early observations: The more people who are standing, the more chaotic boarding tends to be. Copenhagen airport seating areas are designed for groups, even though most travelers come solo or in pairs. Solo flyers like to sit in a corner and put their bag on an adjacent seat. Pairs of travelers tend to perch anywhere as long as they can sit side-by-side.

For the next stage of the project, the airport has given the researchers permission to change seating configurations at some terminal gates to figure out which arrangements are most likely to encourage greater numbers of passengers to sit down and help make the boarding process more orderly. Among possible ideas the team is considering are expanding the number of spots that could encourage single travelers to sit and placing signs with updates about the status of the boarding in key locations.

When people are uncertain about the process, they tend to follow each other, and that can lead to a large group of people clogging up the boarding, Dr. Hansen says.

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Has the advent of smartphones changed customer behavior in restaurants? According to a piece in PetaPixel, it has and not in a really good way (Restaurant Finds that Smartphone Photos Have Doubled Table Times Since 2004, Jul 14). Here’s the gist of the story, someone at a popular New York City supposedly sat down and looked at security footage from 2004 and 2014 and compared how long customers sat at tables. They measured out how long it took them to peruse the menu, eat their food etc. Here is a sample description of what they found in 2014.

  • Customers walk in.
  • Customers get seated and is given menus, out of 45 customers 18 requested to be seated elsewhere.
  • Before even opening the menu they take their phones out, some are taking photos while others are simply doing something else on their phone (sorry we have no clue what they are doing and do not monitor customer WiFi activity).
  • Finally the waiters are walking over to the table to see what the customers would like to order. The majority have not even opened the menu and ask the waiter to wait a bit.
  • Customer opens the menu, places their hands holding their phones on top of it and continue doing whatever on their phone.
  • Waiter returns to see if they are ready to order or have any questions. The customer asks for more time.
  • Finally they are ready to order.
  • Total average time from when the customer was seated until they placed their order 21 minutes. [Compared to 8 mins in 2004]

There are similar delays for taking pictures of food or each others over the rest of the meal. The punchline is that they found that the average time a party sat at a table climbed by 50 minutes — from 1:05 to 1:55.

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It’s been a while since we have posted about airline baggage fees, one of my favorite topics. As I have argued before (see here or here), baggage fees are interesting since they serve as a way to regulate passenger behavior and potentially lower airline costs. Fewer bags means less labor in loading them on and off planes or tracking down lost bags. It also potentially means less weight if passengers actually bring less stuff aboard. But how much is any of that worth? Are we talking about pennies or dollars or thousands of dollars?

The folks at FiveThirtyEight have tried to answer part of that question (Why Budget Airlines Could Soon Charge You to Use the Bathroom, Jun 30). More specifically, they look at the negative impact of adding extra weight to the average flight (or the gain to be had from shedding weight). Here is how they described their methodology.

Our analysis takes into account the distance of a flight, the weight carried onboard the aircraft, and the aircraft type itself. It then simulates every phase of the flight, from departure gate to arrival gate, in order to determine the fuel consumed at each moment along the flight path. To get an idea of how adding small amounts of weight can affect fuel burn on a typical flight, we analyzed a flight from Boston to Denver operated by a Boeing 737-700. Southwest Airlines operates this service three times per day.

According to our model, the total cost of fuel for operating this flight with 122 passengers (85 percent of the maximum seating-capacity) is about $7,900. Each marginal pound onboard the aircraft for this flight will result in a marginal fuel cost of a little less than 5 cents. So if every passenger remembered to go to the bathroom before boarding, shedding an average of 0.2 liters of urine, the airline would save $2.66 in fuel on this flight alone. Such tactics are not off limits. Ryanair famously contemplated charging customers to use the bathroom (in an effort to reduce the number of on-board bathrooms and pack on more seats). Company spokesman Stephen McNamara said in 2010, “By charging for the toilets we are hoping to change passenger behavior so that they use the bathroom before or after the flight.”

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Have you ever heard of VidCon? Turns out it is, in the words of Wikipedia, “a multi-genre online video convention, held annually in Southern California since 2010. Originally conceived by Hank and John Green of the “Vlogbrothers” YouTube channel, the convention is the largest of its kind in the world, gathering thousands of online video viewers, creators, and industry representatives worldwide.”

My wife and I had never heard of it either until our teenage daughter (who for the sake of this post we’ll call Magenta) put on the full-court press to attend. For better or worse, we caved and today Magenta is Anaheim for the start of the conference with her mom in tow. They have in hand tickets that were purchased months ago. However, they also need to get their IDs for the conference. That was the first order of business today and led to a text I received a little before 9:00AM central time (which, allow me to point out, is not quite 7:00AM in Anaheim):

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Just what does the longest line that Magenta’s Mom has ever seen look like? Take a gander (and see if you can spot Magenta).

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So why bring this up? Beyond being able to publicly thank Magenta’s Mom for falling on this particular parenting grenade, it serves as a nice lead in to a recent Business Insider article on “Why People Wait In Hours-Long Lines For Shake Shack, Cronuts, And iPhones” (Jun 25). (more…)

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Part of the beauty of Uber is that the payment process is all automated. Once your ride is complete, the firm bills the credit card they have on file, minimizing the time it takes to wrap up your trip; there is no fussing over payments and tips with the driver. But how should the driver be paying Uber? The driver after all is dependent on Uber to match them with riders. Currently, the drivers pay (effectively) by sharing their fares with the company. However, the Economist argues that such an arrangement is inefficient (Pricing the surge, Mar 29).

There is some evidence Uber’s surge pricing is improving taxi markets. The firm says drivers are sensitive to price, so that the temptation to earn more is getting more Uber drivers onto the roads at antisocial hours. In San Francisco the number of private cars for hire has shot up, Uber says. This suggests surge pricing has encouraged the number of taxis to vary with demand, with the market getting bigger during peak hours.

However, the inflexibility of Uber’s matchmaking fee, a fixed 20% of the fare, means that it may fail to optimise the matching of demand and supply. In quiet times, when fares are low, it may work well. Suppose it links lots of potential passengers willing to pay $20 for a journey with drivers happy to travel for $15. A 20% ($4) fee leaves both sides content. But now imagine a Friday night, with punters willing to pay $100 for a ride, and drivers happy to take $90: there should be scope for a deal, but Uber’s $20 fee means such journeys won’t happen.

Despite the revenues a matchmaking fee generates, it may not be Uber’s best strategy. A fixed membership charge is often firms’ best option in two-sided markets. By charging drivers a flat monthly fee Uber would generate revenue without creating a price wedge that gets in the way of matches. Since stumping up cash might put infrequent divers off, they could be offered a cheaper category of membership. Uber should keep its surge pricing in place. But to make the market as big as possible, and really revolutionise taxi travel, it might need to retune its fees.

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Uber is an interesting company. While you might argue that their business model is based solely on ignoring the existing regulatory structure of the taxi industry, they certainly have brought innovation to a staid market. They have gotten a lot of attention for the surge pricing program but it is also worth noting that they are doing something novel on the capacity management side of things. Uber does not employ it drivers. Instead, it deals with drivers as independent contractors. In particular, it does not schedule drivers the way, say, a city bus service would. The bus service can tell drivers when and where they are working. Uber can’t do that. It has to offer an incentive for drivers to be available when demand will be high. At the same time, it basically promises its customers that they won’t have to wait long for a ride. Obviously, surge pricing is part of this. Uber takes a fixed percentage of the fare. So if the fare is consistently 50% higher at rush hour, there is a clear reason to be willing to drive at rush hour.

But more generally there is a question of what is it like to drive for Uber. That gets to an interview with John Pepper (What happened when Boloco founder John Pepper became an Uber driver, boston.com, Feb 7 — with a hat tip to my sister for sending this to me). Pepper was the CEO of Boloco, a regional burrito chain, until he had falling out with his board. He then starting driving for UberX. UberX is the Uber service more or less anyone can get into. It competes with Lyft and Sidecar and is premised on people driving their own, standard vehicles. (In contrast, other Uber offerings are for black car service and require a sufficiently lux vehicle and a commercial driver’s license.) Pepper may have quit his job but he doesn’t mean he has to be doing this to put food on the table. He talks about dropping his kids off at a private school and then picking an Uber customer in his Tesla. What makes this interesting is that he brings the perspective of a person who for many years ran a business that hired lots of lower wage workers. Here are some of his interesting observations.

Q. Did you sign up because you wanted to learn about Uber?

A. Whatever business I do next, there’s a lot to learn from their model. Wherever possible, they leverage skills we already have– people already know how to drive. They set very, very clear expectations as to what constitutes success, and then they follow through with the metrics. There are no stories [from drivers] — they don’t want to hear why this customer was wrong, or that customer was crazy. There are these things that are rigid and effective, but I think they could really effect the world of restaurants and retail. …

Q. You write a lot about the ratings that customers give drivers, and how they made you pretty anxious.

A. Right now, the review process of employees is pretty broken in corporate America. Most of us have read Jack Welch’s book about how GE was so diligent about ranking people. But it’s hard to give fair and just performance appraisal. At Uber, they’re not evaluating drivers in that way. The drivers are being evaluated by someone who sees the full experience from start to finish. There’s no conversation to have, no discussion. It’s very compelling. People know moment to moment that they’re being evaluated. It becomes a norm, not a stress point. The good people surface to the top, and the people who can’t deliver consistently good service don’t make it. But they definitely expect the customers to weed out the bad drivers. …

Q. Does it feel like it would be a good job?

A. It’s very free. You can do nine hours, and stop on your own time, and not work the next day. There’s value to that flexibility. They’re guaranteeing $20 an hour at times, and I happened to make about that even when there wasn’t a guaranteed rate. I worked when I wanted to, and didn’t work when I didn’t want to. That sounds pretty good compared to working at a fast food restaurant, making $10, and not being very in control of your life.

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There have been several things written over the last couple of years about working conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) Now we have a BBC report complete with hidden-camera video of what it is like inside a fulfillment center.

If you prefer to read, you can also check out “Amazon workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness’” (Nov 25).

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