I believe line-standing behavior is a common topic of study in game theory, psychology and other areas of research. I had a refreshingly frank conversation with an Alaska Airlines counter agent about it this morning, at any rate.
The classic airline counter line is a so-called “snake line”, which winds back and forth until it reaches the debouchement, where the next available agent (or check-in machine, these days) provides support to the person who’s been waiting longest. That is to say, the person who’s reached the head of the line. (This ignores line expansion issues from the tail end.) This is probably the “fairest” system in most passenger’s eyes, as we’re conditioned to line-standing from a very early age by the school system, if nothing else. First come, first serve. It also optimizes for passengers in trouble, as the rest of the line flows around them to other agents/machines while their issue is being resolved.
The problem with the snake line is that it can be perceived to be moving quite slowly. Even when it is moving effectively, it may look slow due to the layout of the line. So net customer satisfaction drops with both actual wait time and perception of slowness.
Alaska Airlines in Portland has adopted a “lane” system instead of the snake line. Think of grocery store cashier lines, where you have to pick a register, and you’re stuck there even if a problem occurs ahead of you in line. Unless you know the error is serious, say, a crashed cash register, there’s no percentage in changing lines because you have to start all over at the back. It’s first come, first serve in each lane, but the net speed of lanes can vary widely.
In my case this morning, the line to my right moved front-to-back twice before my line moved at all. By the time I realized this, there were people behind me, and it was very impractical to move out of my line without a lot of disruption of luggage or taking down the guidepoles or something. (Even once my line did move, every single passenger in front of me had some issue which prevented a simple, error-free check in.)
So when an Alaska Airlines employee happened by, I flat out asked her, “What do I do when this line won’t move?”
She smiled ruefully and apologized, saying that passengers complained frequently about the newer lines for exactly the reason I was. As I said to her, this was a line-standing system only a consultant could love — it concentrates the penalty for handling errors on the few passengers in a given lane, while maintaining the flow in other lanes. This may be a net benefit to Alaska Airlines, but it’s a sharp penalty to me personally for having selected the wrong line.
Our primary selection criteria in a multi-lane line environment is shortness. Shortness might be a result of prior line abandonment due to an existing stall. Or it might indicate a more efficient than normal line. Except by standing aside and observing the overall pattern of the lines, there’s no way to tell in advance. That in turn is a poor strategy, because after observation time, you still have to stand in line, so you may as well observe while waiting in line.
The funniest thing was what the woman said to me afterward, about her supervisor. “The guy who designed this system never has to use it, that’s why we can’t get it changed back.”
That right there is a profound comment on decision making in corporate America.