After making his way through the check-in line at Pearson Airport and then pushing his son in his stroller through the security screening line that spilled out the door and around the corner, his daughters and wife dragging their luggage ahead of him, Marcus Allen finally made it to the immense border security line where he stood assessing his grim rate of progress.
“Four rows in 15 minutes,” he said. He didn’t expect to make his flight to Orlando.
Meanwhile, people were trying to sneak ahead in the disorganized line that wove through a waiting room’s rows of chairs, while others asked the people ahead of them if they could jump in front because their flight was leaving soon. Self-interest and strained patience were fraying the thin bonds of civility.
“The disorganization is unreal,” said Mr. Allen, an operations manager for a telecommunications company in Ottawa.
Line ups have defined so much of life since the start of the pandemic – line ups for grocery stores, for vaccines and now for travelers at airports – and yet so many organizations still can’t seem to manage them effectively. Line ups, or queues, are a fact of life, and there is a mountain of research that shows there are simple ways to minimize their frustrations, says Richard Larson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research on line ups has earned him the moniker “Dr. Queue.”
“There will always be queues unless we get infinite resources,” Prof. Larson says.
Queue theory traces its beginnings to the early 20th century, when use of telephones had become widespread, Prof. Larson said. The Danish engineer Agner Krarup Erlang essentially gave birth to the filed when he was tasked with determining the queuing capacity of central telephone switches in Copenhagen. This was in the days when telephone exchanges relied on operators pulling wires and plugging in calls, which made wait times top of mind for telephone companies. Too few operators and the queue would be insufferably long; too many of them would be unnecessarily costly to the phone company. Erlang determined how many operators were needed to handle a given volume of calls.
But the real quantum leap arrived with the advent of skyscrapers. People frequently complained that it took too long for an elevator to arrive and get them to their destination. The solution wasn’t to reduce those times, but instead to manage people’s perceptions. Floor to ceiling mirrors were added so that people could distract themselves, and complaints virtually dropped to zero.
Boredom gives way to frustration, and so distraction is key, Prof. Larson says. It’s why waiting rooms usually have magazines and why you’re likely to find televisions in many places where their are line ups, he said.
“You know how they say a watched pot never boils? Well, a watched line up never moves,” he said.
Managing people’s perceptions of time spent in a queue explains why many organizations provide estimated wait times, Prof. Larson says. But if they do, they must err on the side of being conservative. Someone who is told their wait will be 30 minutes but ends up waiting 45 minutes will be more dissatisfied than someone who was never told an estimated wait time, he said.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which operates Pearson International Airport, has taken note.
Last week, it introduced an online dashboard that shows peak times of day, as well as an infographic on how to make the airport experience run as smooth as possible.
“We like to think that informed passengers will ultimately have a better travel experience,” said Janik Reigate, the GTAA’s Director Strategic Customer Relationships.
Managing people’s perception of time is one cornerstone of queue theory; the other is fairness.
“Fairness really dominates our perception of queues,” Prof. Larson said.
Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, once did research that showed customers would prefer a line up with twice the average wait but guaranteed first come first serve, Prof. Larson says.
This is why waiting in a serpentine bank line is usually less frustrating than being in the grocery store and looking over and seeing the line a few cashiers over moving faster than the one you’re in.
It’s also why queue jumpers can make others so irate, or why disorganized line ups at an airport can make travelers vent their frustrations on staff.
“When line ups are badly managed it brings out the worst in all of us because either we feel like we’re being treated like doormats or we have to be aggressive to try to assert our rights,” says Jeff Mowatt, a Calgary-based customer experience strategist.
There are some exceptions to the first in, first served model being perceived as the most fair, said Matt Davison, dean of the faculty of science at the University of Western Ontario. For instance, in emergency rooms. Someone with a sprained wrist likely wouldn’t balk at a car crash victim going straight to the front of the line, Prof. Davison says.
But all things being equal, having one line for everyone is not only perceived as more fair, but statistical analysis consistently shows that it is also on average faster, Prof. Davison says.
If you are stuck in what seems an interminably long line up where no distractions or wait time estimates are being provided, the best advice from experts for how to avoid pulling your hair out in frustration is likely hard to accept, but here it is: try not to think about it.
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