The Indian Economy Blog

November 23, 2005

Incentives For Good Behaviour

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Amit Varma @ 12:23 pm

In response to my post on airports, reader Ila Bhatt writes in:

The next time i read an article/blog/column/whatever on improving pax. facilities at airports i am going to scream! I have spent a week travelling on a mix of old and new carriers in india and quite frankly, flying is now infinitely more dangerous and for once you cannot blame the govt.

The ineffective PYTs who pass off as attendants are no match for surly men who dismiss them outright. Every single flight i was on had people with cellphones switched on, got out of their seats while the flight was barely touching down, opened overhead bins before the plane halted and were at the exit before the aircraft could get parked! No amount of announcements from the PYTs restrained these guys! As a co-passenger I would try and tell people to sit down and even complained about a guy merrily checking his cellphone to no effect.

As pax we have a right to decent airports but we also have a duty to obey rules and regulations – sadly our national lack of civic sense is exposed to the very world we are trying to impress.

Okay, so here are two questions for my readers:

1. What incentives can the airlines offer passengers to behave themselves?

2. What incentive can we offer the airlines for offering those incentives?


  1. Why should there be incentives for following rules? And while we are thinking of incentives, what can we offer citizens to make not enter one-way streets, blow their horns incessantly, dump garbage at the street corner when there is a house pickup facility, flout building norms, steal power, sell borewell water, seek transfers shelling out money, hide income to save tax?

    Comment by Dinesh — November 23, 2005 @ 12:47 pm

  2. Well, you don’t need incentives for those rules. You need enforcement. That said, it’s pretty difficult to enforce those when Indian passengers are concerned. Even on international flights to and from India, I’m usually shocked by the total disregard for airline rules and other passengers’ comfort on display. Most stewardesses on international flights to and from India regard it as the worst sector to be on for that reason.

    Perhaps disincentives can be applied. To do that, it will have to be a government safety regulation, and anyone caught violating that will be fined (like smoking in airplanes, which is subject to a fine). If the airlines are bothered about this, they can lobby the government to set the regulation – the government shouldn’t mind. If the airlines are not bothered by it, then, well, nothing can be done I suppose

    Comment by Aniruddh Gupta — November 23, 2005 @ 1:03 pm

  3. The rule of law is entirely different, Dinesh. If law and order is enforced well, the disincentives for it should be enough to keep people lawful. But what does enforecement mean in the context of airlines?

    Say I’m an unruly guy travelling Sahara. I stand around and open overhead bins before I should. Air hostess ticks me off. I get pissed off and fly Jet next time. All that means is that Sahara has incentives to not tick customers off for such infractions. The question is, what kind of incentives would make them behave differently? And what could they then do to make passengers follow rules without driving them away to other airlines?

    Comment by Amit Varma — November 23, 2005 @ 1:06 pm

  4. Charge an extra amount(let us 10% of the fare) initially, and give the money back to those passengers who behave well. That should make people behave well. And this should be followed by all airlines.

    Comment by Raj — November 23, 2005 @ 1:32 pm

  5. I don’t see why many of these rules are important at all. For instance, the effect of cellphone use on Aircraft equipment is a debatable claim at best. See for instance this post by Bryan Caplan.

    Perhaps a security guard can be placed in full regalia on every plane, and be asked to move around the cabin in a menacing manner. Passengers then can be told that this is being done for their own safety (from themselves amongst other people). I don’t know what incentives you could give airlines to put these guards in.

    However I don’t think many of the rules are as important, as they are made out to be. Rules are not just meant to give some passengers peace of mind, but to prevent disasters from happening. As long as passengers actions do not cause harm to anyone I don’t see why general rules should be created.

    Comment by Gautam Bastian — November 23, 2005 @ 1:36 pm

  6. Just a thought – wouldn’t employing disincentives inadvertently dilute the seriousness of certain issues?. Everyone agrees that smoking on airlines is dangerous. Opening overhead bins before a flight stops is dangerous too, but in a different context.

    I guess the best bet would be peer pressure. If everyone does things appropriately, others might be forced to follow suit. I do agree with what Aniruddh says, and have had the same thoughts myself when I’m flying abroad, but I think this issue is of more urgency in the context of the new domestic flyer in India than the international traveller.

    What’s next? A frequent flyer membership with discounted rates, and points knocked off for bad behavior? In India…?

    Comment by Ram — November 23, 2005 @ 1:38 pm

  7. I meant that hypothetically more than anything else. I was getting at a different point – our seemingly inborn tendency to flout rules. Whether the rules are imposed by the government or by anyone else almost does not matter. I see it daily and it drives me nuts just as it does Ila Bhat and you guys. My broader point is that much that ails us is due to this attitude – rules are to be ignored or bent to our advantage (and someone else’s disadvantage).

    I’m uncomfortable with the incentives idea. We should need no incentives to do what is right. Right in the sense of helping or not causing pain to the maximum number of people. Disincentives may work. Getting the government involved may not help much though – just one more thing we can cock our snook, only we would do it more happily since it is not the poor steward/stewardess but the big government we are mocking.

    Comment by Dinesh — November 23, 2005 @ 1:40 pm

  8. “We should need no incentives to do what is right.”

    Who’s talking about “shoulds” and “should nots”. We’re talking about the real world, and any behavioural change requires incentives or disincentives to drive it.

    Comment by Amit Varma — November 23, 2005 @ 2:12 pm

  9. I am not sure whether we should have incentives for following rules. I think it is better to create disincentives for people not following them. Creating disincentives will be economically more efficeint. Anyways you do not reward someone for following traffic lights, but you punish someone who does not. I think a similar act would work best in the aircraft scenario.

    Point I am trying to make is, rules are supposed to be followed. To give incentives to follow rules is not desirable. I think disincentive can be much more effective – a form of punishment.

    Comment by Ameya — November 23, 2005 @ 2:35 pm

  10. Yes, yes, ok, but then what is the incentive for the airlines to create disincentives for misbehaving passengers? Or the disincentives that force the airlines to create disincentives for misbehaving passengers? How is the problem to be solved in the real world?

    Comment by Amit Varma — November 23, 2005 @ 2:39 pm

  11. Elsewhere in the world, not following orders from the crew can land you in trouble. If all the airlines start confisicating cellphones or harassing offenders who get up from their seats early (hold them back at the airport, delay their baggage, whatever) then we’ll start following the rules. Even having someone yell at offenders (in public) would be fairly effective. The key is to have all the airlines do it in tandem – Jet doing it and Sahara not doing it wouldn’t work.

    The incentive for the airlines is enhanced safety – the merits of cellphone use are debatable, but one of the worst airplane accidents in the world was due to a collision between two planes that were taxiing on the runway. Having people stay in their seats and not block aisles is a simple measure to help people get out faster in case something like that happens.

    Comment by Karthik — November 23, 2005 @ 2:47 pm

  12. How about a “National Database of unruly passengers” … shared by all airlines, and updated by all.

    So, if a passenger misbehaves on one airline, all airlines blacklist him, or atleast make it more costly for him. Nothing persuades people better, or more quickly, than a few extra buxks. Especially, when the well-behaved guy next to you pays less….

    I think we can extend this to unruly drivers, unruly rail passengers, in fact…. all the way to unruly citizens, in general, who would be refused any service / product by those sharing the database.

    Comment by Theesra — November 23, 2005 @ 2:52 pm

  13. Maybe yelling can work effectively. Atleast on SQ the steward/ess will first politely instruct the passenger concerned, then raise her voice so that around a dozen co-passengers can hear her. The passengers then meekly get back into the seat.

    Maybe we can have a small lucky draw at the end of the flight, forcing people not to hurry out of the flight. This will ensure universal participation and reward only a lucky one (a game of chance), not all who follow rules – thus being economically efficient as well.

    As far as unruly Indians and India being the worst sector is concerned, I am sure you have not tried routes carrying passengers from Mainland China. Yours truly was witness to a situation where the guy wanted to go to the loo at the exact time the plane was about to take off.

    Comment by Ameya — November 23, 2005 @ 3:10 pm

  14. In the US, standing up in while the plane is taxiing, using a cellphone and all are FAA violations. If the passenger doesn’t comply with the fligth attendant’s requests to behave, they can either be kicked off the flight or arrested as soon as the plane arrives at the destination. Although I’ve never experienced anything like this the times I’ve travelled to India, why not do the above? These are middle to upper class people who are flying, they know the rules and openly disobey them. No better way to set them straight then to send them off to jail.

    Comment by AK — November 23, 2005 @ 3:26 pm

  15. Hmm… all of the above work only if all the airlines follow the incentive / disincentive system. However, an airline may think that it’s better off not following the rules. The Pareto Optimal equillibrium in this instance will always be that airlines will not check unruly passengers. Therefore, it needs an outside agency to set the rules. Like the government.

    Comment by Aniruddh Gupta — November 23, 2005 @ 3:32 pm

  16. @ Ak
    Maybe a good hefty fine would also doo some good. Sheesh, we need to tell humans how to behave like one!!

    Comment by Rahul M — November 23, 2005 @ 3:33 pm

  17. As AK says above, the Indian equivalent of the FAA (which I guess would be the Ministry of Aviation). That is the only way in which effective disincentives can be created for both airlines and passengers.

    Comment by Aniruddh Gupta — November 23, 2005 @ 3:36 pm

  18. Test this:

    How about locking up the overhead bins during the parking phase? Setting up temporary barriers between passenger seats?

    Ok.. these are rules… incentives would be tougher to come up with.

    If all the seats had TVs, maybe a lottery/quiz at the end of the flight can keep them in their seats.

    Comment by Abhinay — November 23, 2005 @ 7:24 pm

  19. Hello,

    I am plesantly surprised to see that Amit has posted my mail and the very many responses !
    While i am in favour of an on the spot fine, i realise it cannot work if it is not imposed in the same measure by every airline – each may after all have a different yardstick to measure passenger obedience !
    How about airlines actively encouraging passengers to squeal on each other – like making a statutory announcement ” if you see someone getting up before the plane has parked , please note down his (ITS ALWAYS A MAN btw) seat number and inform the flight attendant – and every such “khabru” will receive a silver bowl worth Rs. 3000/- instantly. As a precaution against misuse and as every journalist knows there must be atleast one other source with whom a story can be counterchecked – the squealer must be backed by atleast 1 other co passenger who should preferably not be a relative ..or some such thing….
    Any thoughts anyone ?

    Comment by Ila Bhat — November 23, 2005 @ 8:20 pm

  20. Public awareness camapigns on air travel safety can really help. Since air travel is relatively new to us, lot of us still carry that “railways” traveling mentality:
    – Waiting at the door before the station reaches.
    – Or pushing and shoving across the aisles when boarding as if you are getting on a “unreserved” compartment. They forget that they have a designated seat.

    It will take a few years before such “civic” sense kicks-in. I guess this is sort of growing pains we have to endure.

    Comment by Kowshic — November 23, 2005 @ 8:38 pm

  21. Here is an analogy:
    It is illegal to sell cigarettes to minors. Each cigarette retailer enforces this. Does the retailer have an incentive to deny minors cigarettes? The (dis)incentives are fines and jail terms.

    This is how its done:
    There is a federal law that mandates the states to prohibit cigarette sales to minors. States pass their own laws to enforce this and thus comply with federal law. While the details of these laws are different, they usually hold the retailer *and the person making the sale* directly accountable.

    Lessons for airline safety:

    Hold the flight attendant/captain directly responsible.

    Have plainclothes enforcement officers taking random flights. We already have marshalls for anti-hijacking right?

    As an aside, I remember reading in either David Frum’s book “The Right Man” or Michael Waldman’s “POTUS Speaks”, that after fyling Air Force One, where you dont require seatbelts etc. how you will never take flying regulations seriously again :)

    Comment by Neeraj Krishnan — November 23, 2005 @ 9:01 pm

  22. Neeraj, well said but i was witness to what happened multiple times – i dont wish to go off on a tangent and turn this into a gender and/or age based debate but the fact was that none of those men were willing to listen to (i assume) ” young women ” ! none of the flights had a male purser so i couldnt test the theory as the scenes repeated themselves ! the captain is busy trying to land the aircraft and unless the flight attendants can physically enforce the regulations, penalising them will be counter productive – their respective unions will simply go on strike. We need a bunch of solutions – public awareness campaigns in movie theaters , on tv , incentives and disincentives to all the stakeholders – the passengers, the airlines and their employees. The more i read thru the comments the more i realise the “one size fits all” type of solution will not work.

    Comment by Ila Bhat — November 23, 2005 @ 9:14 pm

  23. Amit: There is a chance that losing some unruly customers to your competitor is a good thing. It will keep the other well-behaved customers happier. It will give the airline strictly enforcing the rules a good name and drive the bad customers to their competitor.

    Comment by Vivek G — November 23, 2005 @ 9:20 pm

  24. I’m inclined to agree with the posters that argue that external enforcement is necessary. I don’t know the economic rationale behind this, but at the very least, blaming an external entity allows the airlines to get away with enforcement without taking the “I’ll take my business elsewhere” penalty.

    But I am equally dubious that some creaky government organization is upto to the task of enforcement either. Maybe we need booths/stalls in the airport itself where people can be stashed briefly to cool down and/or pay a fine for bad behaviour. The matter is taken care of locally; they have no time to call their ‘uncle-ji’ in the ministry to pull some strings and let them out, and there is no major hardship.

    Better yet, make the booths transparent so the ever-powerful middle class shame factor can kick in ;)

    Comment by Suresh — November 23, 2005 @ 9:21 pm

  25. I don’t think incentives are the way. Ideally, if an incentive works you end up having to give it to everybody. Punishment on the other hand can be given to a few while the message will be passed on to everyone.

    The only problem (big one at that) is people may be discouraged from using your airline.

    Comment by Patel — November 23, 2005 @ 9:31 pm

  26. It’s the responsibility of the airline staff to ensure that people do things that do not endanger the safety. Is there a consumer group like ‘Indian Air Paasenger Association’? Such a consumer advocacy can act as an important pressure group that can expose airlines that condone these unsafe passenger behaviors. They can rate the airlines on this dimension along with other things like quality of service etc. I am sure many passengers concerned about safety will avoid airlines that are rated low on ‘condoning unruly passenger behavior’ dimension.

    Comment by sv — November 23, 2005 @ 10:01 pm

  27. Amit,
    I suppose you could take the approach that this sort of behaviour is a negative externality imposed on fellow passengers/crew, and therefore it should be taxed accordingly. If we agree that’s the case, clearly what we need then are disincentives and in this case disincentives would certainly be laws (FAA style) and effective enforcement across the board (applies equally to Jet as to Sahara). Of course, as anyone who has spent time in India knows, enforcement is easier said than done. But, it might be easier to enforce laws in the aviation sector because, for instance, a pilot can simply refuse to take off until an unruly passenger is offloaded (without a refund).

    My Rs 0.02

    Comment by Reuben Abraham — November 23, 2005 @ 11:49 pm

  28. ‘Freakonomics’ has a good example where fining people for picking up their kids late from school (and inconveniencing the school staff) caused such incidents to go up. Putting a price on this made it easier for people to do it (their guilt now had a price basically). So, monetary incentives do not necessarily work.

    The only incentives that can work will be ones that cause these passengers genuine inconveninece. As Reuben says, offloading a passenger a few times (especially if all airlines enforce this uniformly) will send a strong message. A few examples will make this self-reinforcing. Maybe embarrassment by someone in the flight crew (a loud warning or something like described above) may be useful in some circumstances.

    Comment by Ajay — November 24, 2005 @ 7:37 am

  29. Delay the passengers that break rules. If you break a rule, 30 mins delay before you can proceed. A cop just makes you sit. Or embarassment. I remeber a few years ago outside Churchgate Station, to make people use the underground subway to cross streets, they made offenders do sit ups in public. We Indians may be poorly mannered but we do embarass easily.

    And its not just men who flout the rules. All the Gujju/Maru Aunties do it too…. they need to make sure that they get their ‘theplas’ from the carry on bin 5 rows ahead of their seat.

    Comment by AD — November 24, 2005 @ 6:13 pm

  30. My experience mirrors Ila’s. And, BTW, I have shouted a couple of times at fellow passengers using cell phones.

    First off,l I don’t buy into the argument that an airline enforcing rules is likely to lose passengers to other airlines. Absolutly not. It’s the other way around..If the enforcing airline publicizes their no-violation policy, my guess is that they’re likely to see their traffic increase — as the rules-following passengers (majority) seek them out for their service and peace of mind.

    I also don’t think the government should get into this sort of regulation. The airlines can handle it themselves.

    One reason Indians are so callous about flouting rules is that we grow up surrounded by a thicket of rules & regulations, many of which are silly… and which you have to flout/ ignore to get ahead. This leads to an erosion of the legitmacy of all laws and rules, even ones that make sense.

    What should the airline do, in this instance? If I was running the airline, I’d lay down strict penalties for the flouting of the rules, and make sure they’re drilled into each passenger — via the ticket + the internal TV + the attendants mentioning them.

    The penalites could be

    1) Delayed release of luggage

    2) Confiscation of cell phones

    3) Pulling aside these jokers at the end of the ride for a 30-minute delay.

    And no, this is not the job of the PYTs or the attendants. There should be private security guys waiting at the end of the flight to pull these guys aside.

    A passenger on Jet is on Jet’s property and is bound to obey their rules & regulations — so if I was Jet, I’d hire a few private security guys. I wouldn’t rely on the cops or the government.

    I was on Southwest airlines in the US and one of the passengers used his Blackberry even after the “curfew”. The attendant warned him once, but he ignored her for 5 mins. When the plane landed, SW private security guys took this guy aside and didn’t release his luggage for a couple of hours. If Jet was to do this a few times, everyone would fall into line.

    Comment by Prashant Kothari — November 25, 2005 @ 4:15 am

  31. I wonder if it will be legal for me to be detained against my wishes by private security guards owned by the airline. Or for them to punish me otherwise by holding my luggage any longer than they have to. Should these guards be armed? How long are they allowed to detain people? Do I have the right to a lawyer?

    Isnt law enforcement one of the few things government should be doing?

    Comment by Neeraj Krishnan — November 25, 2005 @ 5:35 am

  32. No ideas on how to make people behave, but just a funny take on this whole issue, written by me a while ago. If we can’t beat them, let’s laugh at them …?

    Comment by anjali — November 25, 2005 @ 10:03 am

  33. Well, technically, most reports indicate that cell phones don’t really interfere with the plane’s communication systems or anything, but still better to be safe than sorry. But it is still just plain rude to talk on a cellphone in a crowded airplane, and I hope to god that these new planes that will supposedly allow for cell phone use don’t pan out.

    Also, somebody mentioned private security to tackle this problem. If that’s the case, do you think any airline would want to waste money on this? How many security guards would have to be employed, and is it worth the trouble? There aren’t too many people who stop flying altogether because of these annoying incidents, and I bet most airline companies would see the costs are greater than the benefits. And besides, most of all, these are security issues. Security issues should be dealt with my the government and local authorities. The private sector will not solve every problem on its own.

    Comment by AK — November 25, 2005 @ 2:43 pm

  34. As per AK There aren’t too many people who stop flying altogether because of these annoying incidents, and I bet most airline companies would see the costs are greater than the benefits.

    It’s not a question of people stopping flying so much as people switching to an airline where you don’t have this sort of rude behavior… as the comments indicate, there’s lots of people who find this sort of behavior irritating, and would gladly switch to an alternative…. especially anyone who’s flown overseas.

    Even a small increase in traffic would justify the costs…would be a definitive PR plus…

    BTW, the private sector can take care of a lot more than we give it credit for — see this, for instance

    Comment by Prashant Kothari — November 25, 2005 @ 10:20 pm

  35. i googled for something completely different, but found your page… and have to say thanks. nice blog!

    Comment by Otaro — November 30, 2005 @ 5:13 am

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