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Why Do We Hate Lines?

4 April 2017

Geof read Why Waiting Is Torture and pondered why waiting in line is so miserable.

Tags: geof read

Curse you lines! Whether at the bank, doctor’s office, airport, toll booth, or even the bathroom in the morning. But why?

The thought struck me the other day as I stood in line at the grocery store. Our local supermarket is fantastic at opening extra lines when the queues become more than two deep. And when a new line opens, there seems to be a mad dash from the surrounding lines. (guilty!)

Turns out there are several factors that contribute to our collective disdain for the line. After a quick internet search on my phone (while waiting in line) I came across a fascinating story. Years ago, a Houston airport encountered a similar issue with lines. New York Times author Alex Stone described it in his 2012 article Why Waiting Is Torture. 

“Executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issues. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working the shift. The plan worked: the average wait time fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted. Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88% of their time, in others words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags. So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers had to walk six times longer for their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.”

This anecdote, as Stone describes, illustrates the idea of occupied time versus unoccupied time. At the Houston airport, the occupied time of walking to baggage claim was disproportionate to the unoccupied time of waiting for the luggage. (This is one reason almost a third of us make impulse purchases in the checkout line – it helps occupy our time).

Beside the psychological concepts of waiting in line, I also found this story fascinating in the seemingly illogical solution proposed by the airport. Moving the baggage line farther away to rebalance the occupied versus unoccupied wait time is brilliant in its counter-intuitiveness. What other parts of daily life could be made less miserable with such a solution?

Even more exciting (for me) was the directly observing passengers, and the walk time from plane to baggage, officials came across the real insight regarding the disproportion time. In what areas of your organization can you observe stakeholders and find richer insights?

So perhaps I should appreciate the line a bit more, after all, if it wasn’t for the idle time of waiting, I never would have bothered to search for, and find the article.


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