Today Donna and i flew back to Pennsylvania, after the SBL Conference in San Diego (i hope to post the slides from my talks soon!), to spend Thanksgiving with our kids, all of whom live on the East Coast. This is a challenging time of year for air travel, but i was really dismayed by the experience we had this morning on US Airways.

Before boarding passengers onto the plane, the agents in the terminal announced that the flight was overbooked (as often occurs), and they were soliciting passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. Then they boarded the flight, and everybody got settled in: the usual routine. So we’re all sitting on the plane, seat belts fastened low and tight across our hips and luggage securely stowed, and it’s time to go: now an agent comes on board and say “Folks, i’m begging you: we need nine more people to volunteer to give up their seats. This is a direct flight across the country so we need lots of fuel, people have lots of luggage, so the plane is heavy, and San Diego has a short runway: so we’re going to have to sit here until we get enough volunteers.”

Next thing, a bunch of people dutifully get up and go forward (incentivized by the promise of a free ticket). While the flight was nearly full before (though we were lucky enough to have an empty seat next to us, that was the only one i could see prior to the exodus), now some seats are open, so the flight attendants helpfully re-situate some people: the 6′-6″ guy stuck in the tiny window seat now gets an aisle, the family in the very back row with a small child moves forward to a row that’s become vacant, etc.

More time passes – what’s the delay? – and lo and behold, 7 or 8 of the people who had gotten off the plane now get back on. Apparently the airline got more volunteers than they needed, so these poor folks who had already retrieved their carry-on luggage and trudged off the plane are back again, looking for seats. But of course, the seats they only recently left are now occupied by somebody else! So now there’s a couple wandering up and down looking for two seats together, the 6′-6″ guy goes back to his tiny seat, the family moves to the back of the plane again, and so forth. The attendants in the back are encouraging the returnees to just take any available seat, and then the attendant in the front announces over the loudspeaker than everyone should return to their originally assigned seats (and the attendants in the back groan). More chaos and shuffling of bodies and luggage ensues. When we finally take off, it’s a good half hour later than our scheduled departure, the people who volunteered and then got turned back are dejected, the people who moved only to have their new seats taken away from then are ticked off, and we’re all just shaking our heads (or worse).

What made this all such a mess (and here’s the point of my post) is that they apparently didn’t use the information they already had in a timely manner to avoid all this chaos. In the terminal, they never quantified how many volunteers they needed. I’m hard pressed to believe that this need only appeared after loading the plane: were the 200 or so passengers so much heavier on average that all of a sudden they required an additional 5% reduction in the number of passengers?!? Did the winds suddenly change direction, requiring a drastic change in the fuel requirements? What’s the point in loading a passenger on the plane, only to them cajole him or her into giving up their seat 20 minutes later? I can see this for one or maybe two seats, but nine?!? If they had just communicated clearly (with the appropriate incentives) before loading the plane, most of this could have been avoided.

That was only the first information failure: the second was that anybody (who wasn’t missing fingers) could easily tally up how many people got off the plane as volunteers, and it was considerably more than nine. I don’t begrudge them trying for a free ticket: but after #10, why didn’t the airline personnel say “thanks, we’ve got our volunteers” and stop there? (You might also question whether the attendants should have moved people around if there was a chance others might come back.)

The point of this rant, if there is one: the purpose of information is to help you make better decisions. You’re far better off using the information you have now to prevent a problem, rather than allowing a problem to develop and then trying to fix it later. You can sometimes be excused for not having the information you need to prevent a problem (though to be effective, you have a responsibility to proactively determine what information you need and get it). But there’s no excuse for having information that tells you there’s a problem, and then just ignoring it.