Weirdly Wired: Why Do People Queue Before Boarding Flights

People at airport long wait time

Why do we queue up for everything?

A couple of decades into the future, humans will review our CCTV tapes in the quest to understand what made us tick - and they will be dumbfounded.

We collectively do inexplicable things. Why do we keep on scrolling down our Facebook feeds without actually reading the posts? Why do we hate wearing seatbelts when they’re meant to save us from death? Why do we buy 30 bottles of bleach just because they’re on sale?

In about 50 years, all these won’t make sense.

If we hold a contest today on what’s the most mind-boggling thing people do, what do you think will win?

People queuing up before boarding a plane is sure to be one of the strongest contenders, right? It has to be.

Let’s give it a quick spin and look at the facts.

Race to the gate

Airlines and airport procedures have progressed pretty well in the last decade. When you book a flight, you usually get an assigned seat. Along with your ticket comes important information: boarding gate, flight schedule, and other things you have to know.

To you, it’s a race - whoever reaches the gate first gets the comfiest seats. Still, sitting on the floor is not too bad, especially when you’re close to the power sockets.

As you wait, you wonder whether that’s your plane moving near the boarding area. When the tarmac isn’t visible, you just crane your neck a bit each time you hear a voice through the PA system.

Now boarding. Flight ABC123 to Denver.” Nope, still not your flight.

You will get a few false alarms where you stand up thinking this one’s finally yours, only to find others are still glued to their seats, watching Netflix on their tablets or cuddling with their beaus.

You know how it is. If you’re not quick, you’ll be way behind the line.

Here’s the question, though. You have a seat assigned to you. You’re just in front of the gate. Sometimes, you can even see the plane.

Did you ever stop to think why you rush and queue as the flight is boarding?

Here’s how the scenario usually looks like.

If your internal dialogue goes something like: “I’ll be agonizing in a skimpy seat on this airplane for the next six hours, I might as well stretch my legs here while waiting,” then you’re wiser than most.

The truth is, it’s unusual to find a person sitting down when the attendant already announced boarding. Everybody’s rushing and rushing. Often, only to get stuck in line, not to get to the plane any sooner.

Familiar? Let’s examine the possible excuses, um, reasons.

Why do people want to line up so bad?

In this world that’s obsessed with getting things done fast, it seems counterintuitive to want to wait in line even when you don’t have to. Let this list shed light on this irrational behavior:

Herd mentality. “Everybody’s doing it, why won’t I?”

Reason #1

Going with the flow and making decisions based upon the actions of others could take you far in certain situations - say, riding a new technological wave. However, there’s no doubt that in this case, it’s just inefficient.

In a research about herd mentality, scientists from the University of Leeds found out that as the actions of as little as five people can influence a crowd of 100 to follow suit. According to their study, this subconscious behavior is found across species - not just humans!

It’s a competition 24/7. “I want to be ahead, always.”

Reason #2

People want to be first, get the best, be the best. When in an airport or even in stores, you see people finding ways to save a spot in the line - never minding if they’re getting the stink-eye from everyone in line. The naysayers are reluctant to speak out, as if saying, “We understand”.

Afraid to run out of bin space. It’s a myth.

Reason #3

Save for very, very rare circumstances, airplanes always have enough overhead bin space for every passenger. Most airlines have increased bin space to appease complainants. That said, this is just an excuse. There’s a deeper reason people fall in line even when there are seats around, and there’s a boarding system in place. It’s FOMO

  • “Fear Of Missing Out” - in full effect.

The illusion of getting to the destination faster. “I’m in a hurry!”

Reason #4

The plane leaves when everyone is on board. That’s the non-negotiable truth. People rush into falling in line because they want to get to their destination faster and they feel being first on the plane will give them just that.

Columbia University Professor David Maister argued in his paper entitled The Psychology of Waiting Lines that “occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time”.

Is lining up more productive than resting your behind and stretching your legs before a long flight? It may feel that way, but it certainly doesn’t work that way.

Is it good for business?

From a customer service perspective, there are valid reasons people rush in line at the airport. Perhaps they want a window seat? Maybe they’re a customer with special needs? Reasons like being over-the-top exhausted are valid as well.

However, as customer service professionals, you have to see this from the inside-out. Is unproductive queueing hurting your store’s performance? Does this line-stuffing, get-me-to-the-front customer attitude hamper your business?

If your customers are hurrying to get to the counter - you’re in bad shape. And it’s not necessarily the customer’s fault. (Not that it ever is.)

Do you notice how entering huge stores like Target and Best Buy makes you feel like you just got into another dimension? Super bright lights, smiley faces, expansive white spaces, periodically interrupted by uber-colorful, popping signs. If you’re lucky, you also get the latest party hits blasting from the speakers.

Customers need to be kept busy - whether it’s speaking with a store specialist, checking out an interactive ad, or taking advantage of free samples. Otherwise, they’ll get in line pronto. Few products, no upsell. No sales for you, and a forgettable experience for the customer. You must always think about how to improve the retail experience.

While some businesses like Olive Garden get away with (and even make a profit!) keeping people in line for longer wait times, the results are not typical.

In business, you want to manage the queue and not let people’s herd mentality take over.

Remember:

  • The longer people stand in line, the less likely they become repeat customers.
  • The length of wait times is directly proportional to your customer service reputation.
  • The more annoyed people get rushing past each other to the cashier, the more they associate a negative customer experience to your store.
  • Honesty about wait times on busy days makes the wait more pleasant for the customer.
  • Never skip a customer to favor another especially during rush hours.

Manage the customer’s journey - from stepping into the store, queue management, to stepping out. You wouldn’t want a mob of angry, frustrated buyers pressuring your cashier to pick it up and check them out as quick as possible. Not only does that disrupt your store’s selling environment - it loses you sales and probably get you a couple of not-so-friendly Facebook reviews.

Keeping customer’s herd mentality from switching on is good for business. How do you keep it at bay in your store?

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