Tuesday April 25th, 12:06 PM. Halifax Stanfield International Airport. Three and a half coffees and four Timbits deep.
Plausible deniability refers to a set of circumstances where someone, usually by virtue of her or his place in the chain of command, can deny involvement in wrongdoing by feigning ignorance. Mutual deniability refers to a set of circumstances where two people can deny wrongdoing by pointing to each other and saying “he did it!”
A few minutes ago, I overheard a ticketing agent at a nearby gate venting to her co-worker. In six words, she captured the essence of a concept that I call “Pan-Institutional Deniability”. While trying to fix a broken printer that looked like it was from the late 1970s, the agent exclaimed: “is everybody on crazy pills here?!” I didn’t yell “AMEN, SISTER!” But I wanted to.
My story isn’t novel. It doesn’t deserve any pity (although I won’t refuse it). We have all been there. If you haven’t, you probably will be eventually.
I checked in for my flight yesterday afternoon. After receiving my electronic boarding pass from an Air Canada server located in the 6th Circle of Hell, I noticed that I wasn’t assigned a seat number. Crap, here we go.
Fast forward to 5:14 this morning. My alarm goes off and I check my phone to see if Air Canada updated my ticket. I’m an optimist. After learning that my seat was still… well, not my seat I started to get a little peeved. While sitting at the gate – awaiting my ultimate fate – I ran scenarios through my head. I am only home for five days in an eight month span. Am I going to give the ticketing agent a hard time if she turns me away? Am I going to remind her that I haven’t seen my family in months? Am I going to pretend that I am part of that group of Chinese exchange students and slip onto the flight? I quickly rule out the latter.
I glance up at the ticket agents. Two ladies who look closer to retirement than I do. They are probably mothers, maybe even grandmothers. Surely, they understand how disappointing it would be to learn that their son or grandson would not be home for as long as expected.
I decide to play it cool and let the universe unfold.
Fifteen minutes later, I watch my flight take off from the departure lounge. The ticket agents give me a generous travel voucher and some money for food (which I plan to spend on beer… let’s be real). Their expression told me everything. I could see that they didn’t want to bump me and they could see that I didn’t want to be bumped.
Before leaving the desk, I thanked them and said that I was upset with Air Canada’s bureaucracy. We both knew that there were empty business-class seats on the flight that could have and should have been filled. The agents both shared a look, smiled, and then told me they worked for three airlines over the years and it was the same story across the board: the system if filled with good people, but structural forces prevent them from acting in customers’ best interests.
A similar story played out when I tried to spend the remainder of the day in the Maple Leaf Lounge – an area reserved for business class travellers. Yes, I understand that I am one of the great unwashed and thus don’t have the right to a pleasant 7+ hours while I wait in the airport because of Air Canada’s profit-maximizing, Darwinian raffle that they call air travel. Still, the least they could do was let me buy a day pass to the lounge – especially seeing as it was completely empty.
Empty business-class seats and an empty business-class lounge. I am starting to see a pattern here. Dare I say that my inconvenient brush-up with the airline industry is indicative of a broader paradox that transcends Air Canada’s convoluted bureaucratic web of policies.
Pan-institutional deniability lies at the core of this paradox.
Here’s the rub. Institutions create rules (or ‘red tape’) to ensure fairness. I can stomach that. It would be unfair for me to benefit from business-class services that I didn’t pay for. If they let me in, they would have to let everyone in. However, in pursuit of fairness, institutions have forgotten about another important value: empathy. An unintended consequence of prioritizing one set of values at the expense of others is that it only allows for one incentive structure to inform how an institution operates. In the airline industry, employees are structurally incentivized to prioritize procedures over a more substantive view of fairness. In the university industry, senior administrators are incentivized to prioritize a balanced budget over alleviating student debt. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
The agent’s sentiment that everyone must be on crazy pills sums up the collective resentment that many of us have towards airlines these days. Passengers are tired of being treated as price units. Tired of forcing down snacks that people wouldn’t feed to their pets. Air travel is the only service that I can think of where, after paying large sums of money upfront, customers can still be denied the service. A hair dresser wouldn’t double book a slot, make you pay in advance, and then tell you that they will take you in six hours. A concert venue doesn’t overbook seats in case there are no-shows.
So, why the airline industry?
When trying to untangle why the airline industry sucks, I think that we could all benefit from looking at things through the lens of pan-institutional deniability. Of course nobody is on crazy pills. Granted, I wouldn’t mind a few to take the edge off at this point. Everyone wants to take the path of least resistance in situations like these. Passengers want to get on the flight they paid for. Ticketing agents don’t want to turn weary travellers away. Grouchy gatekeepers at the Maple Leaf Lounge would probably love to do a good deed from time to time. And a small part of me (a VERY small part of me) even believes that airline executives aren’t heartless lizard people who are hell bent on maintaining an economic bottom line no matter how many people they burn along the way.
I am, once again, sitting at the gate waiting to board my flight. The gate agent just asked for some volunteers. Another day, another overbooked flight. Here we go again. Bump.