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More notes from a grumpy traveller

Neil Kay, Professorial Fellow

Faculty Blog

If there is one thing that frustrates a traveller, it is the signage traps that are laid out to ready to catch them at their most tired and weary, from road signs in Brisbane that would only be seen as you were just passing them, and anyway they were mostly obscured by rainforest  foliage... or the signs for "Uscita" instead of "Exit" on all the motorways to Florence so for 50 kilometres you think you are passing the biggest city in the world that was not even mentioned on a map... or the flush system on toilets in the George Pompidou Centre that only work when you actually open the door to leave them, meaning everyone spending ages searching for levers or buttons to push, eventually giving up then hearing the sound of gushing water as soon as you open the door...

Slightly confusing signs

Slightly confusing signs (Photo credit: Dano)

As someone who has fallen prey to all these traps, I should have been prepared and wary when I arrived at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) this week on my way back to EBS. I read my boarding instructions and headed for Terminal 1, only to find that all the flights were domestic.  I stomped up and down the concourse in frustration a few times before asking a very nice lady in Airport Information, "excuse me could you tell me where I could get the 20.45 to London Heathrow?"

"Ah", she said "you want Terminal I"

"Terminal I?" I said

"Yes", she said "Terminal aye, not Terminal wun" (you will notice I have gone phonetic at this point).

"Don't feel bad" she said cheerfully", "I get this same question many times a day".

Can you imagine if Air Traffic Control was organised the same way?

"Captain have a look at this.  We have just had a text from air traffic control telling us to land at Runway  1... or is it an I...  sorry Captain, can you read that, is it an Runway aye or a Runway wun?”

Of course that would not happen.  Lives up there depend on instructions not being ambiguous or incomplete.  Lives down here do not usually depend on taking the right exit sign out of Brisbane or towards Florence, or on spending fruitless minutes that seems like hours searching for hidden buttons or levers in the toilet of a French cultural centre, or on trudging the footpaths of a semantically confused international airport.  But they are bad for user satisfaction - and ultimately can be bad for business - at least, repeat business.

But here's a thought.  Use incentives.  Suppose we pretended these signs were indeed a matter of life and death?  Suppose all writers of signage for motorways, toilets, and airports were told that if their signage confused, misdirected or frustrated any traveller, that it would be treated as a major agent failure in the spectrum of principal-agent failures?

Put all this in the hands of an economist with a good sense of principal-agent problems and possible rewards and sanctions to help bring these misaligned incentives back into kilter. The costs in terms of making signs clear and simple would be minimal (e.g. relabeling Terminals, 1, 2, 3 and I at SFO as Terminals 1,2,3 and 4), while the benefits in terms of reduced lost hours for tired, frustrated and confused travellers would be immense.  And when the economist is finished with all that, they can deal with the Hotel-With- No-Sign  I blogged about previously.