If You’ve Never Missed a Flight…

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In a recent episode of Harvard Business Review’s excellent podcast After Hours, Youngme Moon, Mihir Desai, and Felix Oberholzer-Gee discussed how airports have changed in the last few years.

Airports used to be dull, noisy, unpleasant and uninspiring places where passengers stood in endless lines and fretted about the miserable steel tunnels they were about to enter. “We all probably spend way too much time at airports — and a lot of our listeners do too,” Moon prefaced a great discussion about the wonders and future business opportunities at airports.

Now, they’re exotic. Now, airports are virtual cities, filled with shops, upscale food, exquisite delicacies and even exhibitions catered to the traditions and nature of their host countries or regions; airports, those infrastructures-turned-architectural wonders that first welcome newly-arrived travelers, have become storefronts to the land. From the Nordic design stores and “poetic rationalism” of Helsinki Airport to the architectural marvel of Dubai International, airports around the world are competing to make our stays, however brief, a delight. Amsterdam’s Schiphol even has a branch the celebrated Rijksmuseum on site!

Last month, the New York Times ran Stephanie Rosenbloom’s piece about her 27-hour vacation at Changi Airport, Singapore’s consistently award-winning airport. Featuring waterfalls, around-the-clock movies and non-stop shopping Changi is “the rare airport that invites you to stay.”

This — as the climate activist Naomi Klein would say — changes everything.

Beyond technological and logistical improvements that make security and immigration procedures much smoother than they used the be, our time on airports can be quite pleasant.

A few years ago, I wrote what has become my most lasting piece and cherished piece — lasting because I am reminded of it every time I walk through an airport and cherished because I value the insight it provides: time is my most valuable resource.

Spending a dark, cold and generally rather miserable morning at Edinburgh Airport, the frustration I felt over heeding my mother’s advice to be on time poured right into a thoughtful elaboration of how frequently I ought to miss flights. Economists persuasively argue that the efficient number of bad things are not zero; at some point, the number of hours spent in minimizing the risk of a missing flight is outweighed by the “squandering” of those hours.

Not long before that unremarkable Scottish winter morning I had finished Ellenberg’s pretty insightful book How Not To Be Wrong and so his Missed Flight-illustration of Expected Utility Theory was on my mind.

Back then I calculated 84 flights with 0 misses. Naively, we might conclude that I was spending too much time on airports, but I prudently qualified that statement by

  1. A low hourly wage (opportunity cost) and so the time didn’t really matter,
  2. A flexible work schedule, where “time at the airport” was replaced by work,
  3. A properly adjusted cost-assessment, including the emotional cost of disrupted plans (as the value to me of a flight exceeds the price I paid for it, the difference becomes a loss every time I miss a flight).

As I celebrated flight #165 yesterday, I thought I’d look back at the record as it currently stands. 165 flights — 1 miss, a miss that took place just shortly after I wrote my piece (karma, anyone?). Perhaps I was spending the optimal amount of time at airports and an acceptable level of risk is something like 1-in-90.

As I’ve optimized my time at airports (my record for London is to arrive on Gatwick Express at 13.19 for a flight that leaves at 14.00), I believe the true acceptable level of risk is a bit higher than that.

On the other hand, I’ve also sometimes increased the hours I spend on airports when I had nothing better to do — or when missing the flight was particularly costly, such as for (3).

Our HBR hosts are entirely right to point to all the wonders of modern airports. They reduce the opportunity cost (1) even further and facilitates work (2); yes, the couple of hours’ of good work spent at a hidden café in a MIA bookstore paid off handsomely.

Shopping malls and foodie heavens change the raw calculus of spending time at airports. Spending time at airports is no longer simply an effort in minimizing the risk of missing your flight. It’s pleasurable. It’s adventure — and it’s sometimes cultured as show by the cases of Singapore and Amsterdam. We usually refer time spent like that as “consumption goods” — and enjoying consumption goods is not the same as “wasting time.”

The take-home point is twofold: spend less time at airports before routine and/or low-value flights, but spend more time at airports that have exotic amenities and feature your favorite assortment of food or before high-value/time-sensitive travels.

Happy flying!

Written by

Writer, editor, and student of money past and present. Here: mostly off-topic stories, personal finance-musings, worldly observations and Reykjavík reflections.

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