It was a bright and sunny Thursday when I made arrangements for a trip from Birmingham to Washington, DC. I elected to buy a flight that connects through Atlanta on Delta Airlines over a direct flight on American Airlines that would be $13 cheaper. In fact, I booked and then canceled the American flight after thinking about it for a few minutes (thank God for Travelocity’s refund policy).
What madness is this? What could possibly possess me, an otherwise rational individual, to pay more for an obviously inferior flight? After all, it isn’t like spending half the day in the airport is most people’s idea of fun. So what gives?
There’s more to travel than the sticker price of different ways of getting from point A to point B.
First, the direct flight on American would have required me to leave the house before 5:30 AM. The Delta itinerary connecting through Atlanta would allow me to leave the house as late as 9, which would give me ample time for breakfast and fun with the kids.
Second, I have a fancy Delta Reserve credit card that gets me access to the Delta Sky Clubs in Atlanta and DC. In recent months they’ve started carrying soups, salads, and sandwich stuff that make for decent meals. That saves me the cost of lunch on the way there and possibly dinner on the way back (depending on the vagaries of Sunday travel).
Third, Silver status on Delta means I get to board earlier (and be virtually guaranteed space for my carry-on bag), sit closer to the front of the plane, and enjoy the (very slim) possibility of an upgrade. With a busy schedule and three small kids, I’ve started putting a premium on convenience and comfort while traveling.
Finally, I’m one of the lucky few people who enjoys the “trains, planes, and automobiles” part of travel. I work well in airports and on planes, and my inner wide-eyed child who is excited about getting on a plane usually wins out over my inner grumpy old man who is upset with the inconveniences and indignities that go with travel.
So what is the economics lesson? My travel planning illustrates Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s point about The Use of Knowledge in Society: the economic problem concerns the effective collection and deployment of knowledge dispersed across billions of minds—knowledge that cannot be known by a central planner or forced into a simple optimization problem.
A man of system who think she can arrange the members of a great society with as much ease as he arranges the pieces on a chessboard would likely say “put him on the direct flight.”
Perhaps I could protest. Perhaps I could register my preferences for taking later flights so I can be with my family with the People’s Bureau of Preferences.
Or maybe I could just log in to Delta.com and make my own arrangements without having to appeal for permission to a central planning bureau.