How To Do The Queue

According to unverified estimates bandied about on the internet, every year Americans spend about 37 billion hours waiting in line. Over their lifetime, Americans will spend some 2 to 3 years of their life in queue.

I have absorbed the routine lines of daily living, rarely noticing the wait at the bank, grocery store, post office, Starbuck’s, or on hold with Comcast. However, at the airport I definitely feel the accumulation of years of waiting as I stand in the following sequence of lines:

1. On busy days 2 toll booths on the way to the airport
2. Shuttle from remote parking
3. Kiosk for boarding pass (foolishly I forgot to print mine at home)
4. Security to check ID
5. Second line to disrobe and pass bag and body through scanner
6. Post security Starbuck’s or some other guilty pleasure
7. Pre flight pee
8. First in line at the gate (before they even call my boarding group) to ensure that there will be adequate overhead bin space for my carry-on
9. Line in the jetway to take my seat
10. The plane (and all its passengers) wait in line on the runway to take off
11. In flight pee
12. Line to exit the plane
13. Taxi stand for final ground transportation (or shuttle to rental car)
14. Line at rental car (unless lucky enough to be a gold, emerald or some other type of precious metal customer)
15. Check in at the hotel
16. Elevator line

While I will admit to an undercurrent of weary frustration mixed with resignation, I, along with most Americans, endure lines with exemplary patience. In fact, standing in lines is a quintessential human characteristic, a lesson I learned in childhood and one that I have in turn passed on to our young son.

“Ned, please don’t fidget in line. Remember how we talked about sharing and taking your turn? Well standing in line is just the same except that you are doing it with strangers.”

This was not an easy sell and took several reinforcing efforts, perhaps because patience and waiting in line challenges the more primal instinct of survival of the fitness. After all, I have never seen a group of monkeys peacefully standing in line at the watering hole.

The concept of an orderly queue is based on fairness. In fact, stripped down to its core, patiently waiting in line is a bedrock of democracy – all men are created equal, everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time, no one’s shit smells better than another and go to the back of the line like everyone else. Sociologists have labeled the queue a “self-regulating social system,” complete with all sorts of arcane jargon and equations full of odd symbols. But kids in the cafeteria line express it succinctly. The directive of “Hey man, no cuts” is delivered with a piercing stare of peer pressure and the collective authority of the social system.

A few acceptable exceptions to “first come first serve” fairness do exist. In the emergency room the man with the sprained ankle will graciously give up his spot in the queue to the sweaty man clutching his heart. The express line at the grocery store is based on the general consensus that a woman buying a single carton of milk should not have to wait behind a doomsday prepper with a cart piled high with light bulbs and canned tuna fish. However, the express lane will only work if shoppers respect the item limit. In the spirit of self-regulation I have occasionally considered tapping the shopper on the shoulder if I count up twelve items instead of the designated ten. But then I might wonder if I have counted correctly. Did I count the bananas individually instead of just one item for the bunch, or did the shopper unwittingly exceed the limit with last minute impulse purchases of Skittles and a toe-nail clipper?

The queue will exert its own personality in less well-defined cutting situations. Queue tolerance is questionable for the person who cuts through the airport security line with the breezy statement, “Sorry, sorry, but my plane is leaving in 30 minutes.” Do I really believe that he is late, and why should I be penalized for his tardiness? What if my plane leaves in 35 minutes? The unverifiable 30 minute time frame contrasts with the explicit criterion of ten items in the grocery express lane. I usually give way to the harried traveler elbowing past me, but if someone else in the queue speaks up, I might join in. How about the person who is says he is “saving a place,” and then ten people cut in front to join him? I think that the collective queue might accept saving a place for one or two people, but a group cut may prompt muttering.

Occasionally figures of questionable authority will interfere with the queue’s generally effective self-regulating system. Nurses and doctors in the emergency room have recognized authority to tinker with the queue, but airport personnel are highly suspect. I remember standing in a baggage check line at O’Hare on December 23rd. The single serpentine line was clotted with thousands of frantic travelers who realized that there was no way to get through the sequential bottlenecks of baggage and security to emerge free in the golden land of beckoning gates.

I had scrambled around and discovered that we could avoid the congestion by standing in a separate hidden baggage check line labeled “for airline personnel only.” My family was clearly unqualified for this line, but with no other choice, I marshaled the necessary air of entitlement and stood behind two other groups. And then with horror I saw an American Airlines service representative escorting a family in front of us. He looked at us and said “I’m sorry, these folks will be late for their plane unless they check in.” How did he pluck this group out of seething mass for this special escort service? The attendant’s only authority for this ballsy and blatant cut was some stained and ragged blazer with an American Airlines patch on it. At this moment, I realized that this guy was tugging at the very fabric of “no cuts” democracy – bribery. This desperate family must have slipped the airport guy a $20, $50 or $100 to skip ahead of the line. Yes perhaps I had stretched the rules by finding a better line, but this is another basis of democracy – ingenuity and creativity should be rewarded. However, bribery was unfair and a breach of social justice. I feared that our self-regulating social system was on the brink of collapsing into social anarchy and was relieved when we made it through security.

In the 1960s, when I first started to stand in line at the airport, the single serpentine line had not yet been institutionalized. Each service desk had its individual line and selecting the fastest one was a high stakes gamble. Randomly picking a line was a doomed strategy based on simple math. If I chose randomly from among five available lines, I would only have a one in five chance of choosing the fastest one. So I learned to make an educated line choice, primarily based on ageism. I avoided lines with elderly travelers fumbling with their wallets, or young families with restless children clambering over a teetering stack of bags.

Those days are gone. Airlines have all switched over to the single line, a system that ensures “first come first serve” fairness for the entire queue. If someone takes up more than the average time getting through security, the entire line suffers, and similarly when I go through security, the line benefits because I am the epitome of efficiency. My shoes are off in seconds, I heave my carry-on up to the table and promptly move it along so that there is room for the person behind me. I swiftly gather up my belongings post body scan so that I don’t jam up the line. I am a most welcome addition to any queue.

Most grocery stores have multiple lines, and there I can still use my heritage queue management skills. I avoid lines with elderly folks who look confused about swiping their credit cards, or with kids distracting their parents with demands of impulse candy purchases. I nix a line with a trainee cashier and delay a firm commitment to a line if I sense a new register opening up. If correct, I will be one of the lucky few to skip over to the head of a new line. With multiple lines, there is no guarantee of first come first serve fairness, and luck and careful observation can be rewarded.

Efficient line management may not be a priority at the airport since travelers have no other options. However, retail stores or places like amusement parks are acutely sensitive to the issue since customers can simply walk away and never come back. Matching the number of cash registers or service personnel to traffic volume is the most obvious approach to decrease the wait time, but the expense of additional employees is not a popular solution. A more subtle strategy has emerged. The basic premise is the time standing in line is not the critical issue, it is really how the customer feels while standing there. And feelings can be manipulated. The field of queue psychology was born.

Richard Larson, an MIT professor known as Dr. Q, relates the story of the queue management strategy at an airport where people complained about the length of time spent waiting for bags at baggage claim. The solution was not to increase staffing or efficiency, but to manipulate the perception of the wait by eliminating the unoccupied time at baggage claim. The airlines simply moved the gate to the end of the terminal, so that passengers took longer to walk to baggage claim. The total time between plane touch down and the bags’ arrival in claim was the same, but travelers experienced a shorter amount of irritating unoccupied time once they arrived at baggage claim. Complaints plummeted. I have often wondered why a plane will park at gate C26 on a late night arrival when there are so many closer vacant gates. Since I rarely check bags, my annoying perception is that I am forced to trundle the entire length of the terminal for no obvious reason.

Disney World is the acknowledged master of queue psychology. They wrap lines around corners and out of sight so that the customers are not overwhelmed by their length. Disney has an underground bunker that monitors lines and redeploys Minnie Mouse or Snow White to provide entertainment when a line stalls out. There are also video games and other entertainment kiosks while waiting. The goal is to make the customer feel like the line is part of the overall experience. To me, this is like lobbing marshmallows to a caged polar bear in the delusional hope that he will forget that he lives in a zoo. But apparently the strategy works. Disney is probably the only place where patrons are willing to stand in an hour line for a two minute ride.

The serpentine queue may have been introduced in the spirit of first come first serve fairness, but it didn’t take marketers long to figure out that this captive audience represents a ripe marketing target. By allowing travelers to buy their way into a better line with an additional premium, airlines have transformed “first come first serve” from a right to a privilege. As I look down and see “boarding group 7” emblazoned on my boarding pass, I feel that I am a victim of institutionalized bribery. However, airlines have earned billions of dollars from this type of “ancillary revenue,” and not even an idiot would leave this much money on the table. I’m surprised airlines didn’t think of this scheme sooner.

Retailers have used the serpentine queue as a technique to prolong the exposure to impulse purchases. With the multiple lines at most grocery stores, I am only next to the candy and gum racks for a fraction of my wait time as I unload my groceries onto the conveyor belt. In a single zigging and zagging line at a Trader Joe’s, my entire wait time is spent in an indulgent world of cakes, pies and other guilty pleasures that I easily passed up when I breezed through the dessert aisle.

The marketing potential of the captive audience extends beyond the queue to other venues of unoccupied time. Captive Audience Marketing, Inc. provides the following logic for advertising at the gas pump.

“The beauty of gas pump billboard advertising is that you have the captive attention of gas station patrons for 3-5 minutes. Not many advertising mediums can offer you the same benefits … Gas Pump Billboard Advertising is a medium that gives a person something to do while they wait. They are there to refuel their vehicle and have nothing better to do than look at your ad.”

So now how do I do the queue? I am resigned to the 16 different lines at the airport. My credit card does give me some marginal cachet to stand in a better line, but it is still a line, and I take comfort in the basic fairness of the self-regulating social system. I do refuse, however, to be manipulated during my captivity. My Smart phone has taken the sting out of “unoccupied time,” but advertisers are as relentless as the water trickle carving the Grand Canyon. I just try to keep my head down to shield myself from the soft plop of incoming marshmallows and kick aside any that lie littered at my feet.

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  1. Nancy on August 26, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    Anyone who can write about 2300 words on standing in line is not only crafty and smart, but truly a talented writer …and spot on with your observations!

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