Sunday, December 27, 2015

Should first come, first served outweigh common courtesy?

"First come, first served," is a policy that most of us have experienced. The general principle is that whoever gets to a particular thing enjoys first dibs on using or buying that thing. Occasionally, the approach backfires with tragic results, as witnessed by overzealous crowds at department stores eager to be first in the door to buy a newly on sale product, or by fans who storm a venue which features stadium seating to be first in the gate.

But often, a first come, first served approach works. Apple product fans are known to camp out overnight waiting for a store to open so they can be first in line to get the latest release of some gadget or other. And some airlines use a first come, first served approach to issuing boarding passes for their flights.

G.N., a reader from Ohio, regularly flies on such an airline that boards passengers in the order in which they got their boarding passes. Since seats are not assigned, the first people on board get their pick of seats.

"I try to get my boarding pass soon after it becomes available so I get a good seat," writes G.N. But he observes that the good seats are "a zero-sum game," meaning that his gain in getting a good seat first is some other passenger's loss. That only makes sense since there are a finite number of seats on any passenger plane.

But while he takes pride in getting his boarding pass as soon as it becomes available, it gnaws at G.N. a bit that his efficiency might not always be fair.

"If I have plenty of time to make my connection at the next airport and others have a tight connection, shouldn't I let them get earlier boarding so they could sit near the front and get off first?"

G.N. raises a good point. If someone else on the plane risks losing his or her connecting flight by being seated far back on the airplane, wouldn't the right thing be to make sure to move those with connecting flights up closer to the airplane's exit?

Perhaps, but such consideration would be true for anyone flying on any flight regardless of whether it uses a first come, first served boarding method. It would be thoughtful and make sense if the airline figured out which passengers had the tightest connecting times and made sure they were seated so they could exit the airplane first.

So yes, G.N., the right thing would be to try to make flying as simple and effortless as possible for all passengers and to take special note of those who might need more time to make connections. But the responsibility for doing so doesn't fall on you or other passengers. It falls squarely on the airlines which, after all, are selling a service to their passengers.

Perhaps airlines can make the effort to make flying a bit less anxiety producing by providing such a service. In the meantime, while it's the airlines responsibility to try to get their passengers to their destinations safely and on time, showing courtesy to fellow travelers whenever possible, whether it's to let them step in front of you to exit the plane if they've a tight connection or helping them lift a suitcase into the overhead, is simply a nice thing to do. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's KennedySchool. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

Airplanes take effort at allowing people to reach connecting flights, A late arrival may delay an outgoing for that reason.

I would think one passenger's seating choice has a minimal inconvenience to anyone and it is overkill to concern about it.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

Anonymous said...

If passengers want to take advantage of the low fares offered by airlines that do not have reserved seating they should be content with the seats they get.

If seating is critical they should consider flying another airline and pay the full fare.

Wendy Hagmaier
Anaheim Hills, CA