by Bill, Management, Motivation

Be Careful, Very Careful What You Incent People to Do

0 Comments 13 March 2011

Have you noticed recently that airline flight attendants are becoming considerably more insistent that boarding passengers place only large items (e.g., roll-aboard suitcases) in the overhead bins, and stuff everything else under the seat in front of them? Some even take it upon themselves to remove smaller items like backpacks from the overhead space, identify the owner, and tell them to stow it underneath the seat, whether they want to or not.

This is occurring because most of the major domestic airlines introduced exorbitant checked baggage fees as part of their a-la-carte pricing schemes. Yes, they gain revenue from the checked baggage fees, but three costly and undesirable things happen as a result:

  1. With a substantial disincentive for checking baggage, most passengers opt to schlep all of their items for the trip thru gate security and onto the plane. Security lines get longer and the inspection process becomes less effective.
  2. As no aircraft has ample overhead bin space to accommodate all this stuff, the boarding process groans and drags as passengers make futile efforts to cram it in anyhow. This results in lots of late aircraft departures, not to mention broken overhead bin doors. I was on a flight recently where we pushed back 11 minutes late purely due to “packing” delays.
  3. Under pressure to get the aircraft boarded for an on-time departure, flight attendants become the luggage police, which puts them in constant unhappy conversations with customers, and diverts attention from their far more important safety-related duties, like observing that 5 of the 6 passengers seated in an emergency exit row don’t speak English.

Now, imagine what might happen if the luggage fee was reversed, and luggage could be checked to the passenger’s final destination for free (within limitations), but any carry-on items other than a single, small personal bag would incur a $25 fee.

My bet is that, again, because people (all of us) do what we are incentivized to do, the bulkier items like suitcases would go in the belly of the plane where they belong, airlines would still make money from “boarded luggage” fees, operating expense would improve from a more efficient boarding process, flight attendants would be much better utilized, and passengers would be a lot happier.

Let’s step back and look at this thing thru a wider lens. This situation didn’t get to where it is because airline executives are idiots (okay, a few are, but not in the main.) The fact of the matter is that all (repeat, all) of us have similar situations where, with the best of intentions, we have incented people (employees, customers, vendors, partners, children) to do the wrong things. We pay a steep price for that.

As a suggestion, take a half-hour this week and look for some areas where you might be able to improve organizational outcomes (and maybe some people’s lives, including your own) by adjusting or eliminating counter-productive incentives.


A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book,Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their  website, or follow him on Twitter at


- who has written 239 posts on Contented Cows.

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Considered thought leaders in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden speak to, train, and coach managers on leadership practices for better business outcomes.

OUR PREMISE: Having a focused, engaged, and capably led workforce is one of the best things any organization can do for its bottom line.


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