An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-07-30 06:47
Subject: [travel] The theory of lines
Security: Public
Tags:culture, travel

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.

Originally published at jlake.com. You can comment here or there.

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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2008-07-30 13:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Multiple lines of that nature have been abandoned in a lot of places as they are manifestly stupid. Why have multiple lines when you can have a single line leading to multiple service points (i.e. the person at the head of the line goes to the next available service point). Doesn't work in supermakets because of space considerations and the psychology of the apparently longer line (people like to be able to get straight to an identifiable till, not queue in one point and then seemingly have to go a long distance to the actual point of service), but works and works well at most immigration lines. No-one gets held up and though the line MAY look long, there is almost constant movement which counters the psychological problem of standing in a non-moving line.

A s aBrit, standing in lines (or "queueing" as we call it) is ingrained into our psyche. More so than anywhere else I've ever travelled (except possibly Japan). Even in the US, lines only form where there is a clear physical infrastructure - bus stops see everyone just trying to get on board no matter what, whereas in the UK a bus stop means a line, and that's that.
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russ: pasporto
User: goulo
Date: 2008-07-30 14:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But even Brits don't stand in line waiting to get onto the underground/tube/subway/metro! :)
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User: perimyndith
Date: 2008-07-30 15:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's been my experience that at most bus stops, you are right, everybody forms a huddle and jumps on the bus without regard to who arrived in which order.

However, that's not a universal bus-riding behavior. Lately I've caught a bus from a small park & ride about an hour from Seattle a couple times. At this park & ride there is a clear expectation from the other passengers that you will join the line at the end when you arrive, and stand in your place until the bus arrives. The same 15 or 20 passengers catch this same bus every morning, so perhaps this particular group has a greater sense of community than do an average group of strangers waiting at a bus stop.
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User: lordofallfools
Date: 2008-07-30 14:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Don't look at the people in the line. Look at the aggregate of luggage.
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Jim Kling
User: jkling
Date: 2008-07-30 14:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This makes me think of the Seinfeld episode The Chinese Restaurant, where they're waiting to get seated. Elaine is unhappy about the reservation system. Seating "should be based on who's hungriest!"
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User: biomekanic
Date: 2008-07-30 14:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That right there is a profound comment on decision making in corporate America.

Amen brother, amen...

I was a beta tester for one of our systems. They "improved" it by changing the application from a Unix based system on it's own server ( each state had it's own ) to a web based application.
What took me 15 minutes, took me 45. And that was a simple task. It takes me hours now to do what used to take me about an hour.

It's so much better now though! Instead of 14 servers to maintain ( and if one state went down, the others were still up ), they only have the web application to monitor. This improvement costs me about an entire day of work a week, and I'm one of 4500 engineers.
All so they don't have to pay 1 person to maintain a server farm, and the electric bill.
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Chris McKitterick: Bush dollar
User: mckitterick
Date: 2008-07-30 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Bush dollar
That right there is a profound comment on decision making in corporate America.

Hear, hear.
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User: thecrimsony
Date: 2008-07-30 14:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Her statement applies to my department's scheduling system, where hourly employees' days are scheduled out in 15 minute increments (to help maintain even coverage on the phones). The system was hailed as oh so helpful for the management, who never get called out when they deviate from their "plan" by 15 minutes.
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Kate Schaefer
User: kate_schaefer
Date: 2008-07-30 15:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The best line system I've seen at an airline was a standard snake with a roving customer service person in addition to the counter folks. The rover went along the line, pulled out the people whose plane was next to leave, and sent them to the next open check-in person. This reassured everyone in the line that the airline wouldn't let them miss their plane while standing in line and gave people who weren't on the urgent plane a chance to ask the rover questions as she went along her expediting path. When there weren't any passengers who needed to be expedited, she pointed people at the front of the line to the next open agent, moving them along a bit faster.
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User: pikamyst
Date: 2008-07-30 15:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, please reward those who can't bother to come early enough to catch their flight like a responsible person. -.-
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Kate Schaefer
User: kate_schaefer
Date: 2008-07-30 16:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think of it more as, please get those who could be a problem out of the way as quickly as possible. A passenger having a meltdown delays everyone.
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User: bondo_ba
Date: 2008-07-30 15:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm a consultant. Consultants hate lanes. We like the snake lines. They are much, much better. Ask the Alaskan Airlines people (some of whom I know - and found to be smart people! - from working in the Airline business for a while) if they didn't hire Mexicans to design the system. I first encountered it in Mexico City's airport and was duly appalled.

This type of line change is normally approved by people in the PR department with their heads up... well, you get the point. The reasoning is like this:

PR Analyst: we got ten emails today complaining about our lines. They're too long.

PR Boss (no training in operations research - often a human resources major): then let's put up lanes!

Consultant grinds teeth.
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User: pikamyst
Date: 2008-07-30 15:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I guess that I'm one of the few who like the lane system and seem to get served much faster. There always seems to be less than two people in a lane and I'm checked in completely in less than 10 minutes. I know if there were 15 people in line that it'll take longer than 10 minutes to get through a snake line.

What sounds like needs to happen is they need a system to reroute problems to a single location and have them dealt with that way. That would free up the lane delays and still give those with problems the time they need to address them.
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User: seventorches
Date: 2008-07-30 17:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Apu stays with the Simpsons for awhile and teaches Marge efficient line-reading at the checkouts. He directs her to a longer line that is moving much faster.
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Josh English
User: joshenglish
Date: 2008-07-30 20:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I do the same thing at my local grocery store. Of course, I shop there often enough to know which checkers are good, and which ones are to be avoided. I don't fly often enough to know this information at the airport.
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dinogrl: Roswell
User: dinogrl
Date: 2008-07-30 21:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suggest that you let them know what you said here to us.
Customer Care

Alaska Airlines: 1-800-654-5669
8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. (PT), Monday-Friday

Horizon Air: 206-431-3647
7:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. (PT), Monday-Friday
Fax Service:


Alaska Airlines: E-mail Post Flight Comments
(Problems prior to flights, please e-mail Reservations)

Horizon Air: E-mail Customer Comments
(Problems prior to flights, please e-mail Reservations)

Alaska Airlines Customer Care
P.O. Box 24948 - SEAGT
Seattle, WA 98124-0948

Horizon Air Customer Relations
P.O. Box 68977
Seattle, WA 98168
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