Running late and loaded with luggage, you stagger into the airline terminal, only to find a long zigzag line of more edgy travelers, toeing their bags forward and nervously eyeing their watches.
Inching along, you curse the queues that seem to be everywhere you go, but especially those that hold you up at times like these. It may be some comfort to learn that your irritation is much on the minds of a growing number of companies. And many are moving to do something about it.
American Airlines, in an effort to streamline the check-in service at its Logan Airport terminal in Boston, last year called in a specialist in what until recently had been an arcane field -- the mathematics of queues. He is MIT professor Richard C. Larson, who's been a trouble-shooter for everything from banks with long waiting lines to jammed 911 emergency call lines.
With evaluation of passengers' waiting times the first order of business, Mr. Larson immediately went to the mat -- literally. Technicians from QED, the Cambridge, Mass., consulting company of which Mr. Larson is chairman, installed pressure-sensitive rubber mats on the floor in front of American's ticket counters. Each time a customer approached or left the ticket counter, his foot pressure marked the precise time, and electronic devices embedded in the mat sent that information to a computer.
Profile of a ticket line
Knowing only the time each transaction began and ended, Mr. Larson was able to profile the waiting situation at American's ticket counters. His tool was his own invention, the Queue Inference Engine, which applied powerful statistics and probability formulas to the data collected by the floor mat.
The Inference Engine, he says, determines not only "service times" -- how long each transaction takes -- but also average waiting times, how many customers wait longer than a given length of time and even how many "bail out" of a long line.
Lynn Heitman, American's general manager at Logan, says Mr. Larson "produced a very detailed report for us, about how long people were standing in queues. And they cut it all different ways, by hour of day, day of week, trends over a long time period." Patterns emerged -- such as the heavy-flight periods TC when the counters were not adequately staffed. "The data helped us plan staffing to more specifically match the demand at different times."
Mr. Larson is an expansive fellow who delights in the lore of queues (the term the British as well as mathematicians use for lines), and he's fascinated by the behavior of people standing in lines. He also doesn't like to wait any more than anyone else, and he no longer wears a watch, noting, "I find I'm not as impatient and agitated now when I have to wait."
Disney's 'queue management'
The Walt Disney theme parks could be called the kingdom of queue management. Ever since the opening of the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., in 1956, a division of operations specialists has been seeking ways to move people more efficiently through attractions, to conceal the wait ahead, or at least to keep the lines entertained.
"We call it 'guestology,' " said Al Shacklett, manager of industrial engineering development for the theme parks, which refer to their customers as "guests."
What's happening at Disney is a microcosm of the service industry everywhere. With people feeling busier than ever, with less and less time to fit in everything they want to do, they're more and more annoyed by wasted time.
"Americans are very picky about how they spend their time, and they want to be guaranteed they will get the most value for their money," Mr. Shacklett said. Over the years, Americans "have gotten more and more demanding" of quick service.
Disney engineers, mindful that theirs is no longer the only game in town, have developed tools for analyzing capacities and waiting times at attractions in their parks in California, Florida, France and Japan.
They've been fairly successful, but don't to ask them for the details. "We're fairly tight-lipped about them," adds Mr. Shacklett.
Some of the tenets of successful guestology are no secret. For example:
No. 1. Keep waits to a maximum of 15 minutes.
This isn't easy given the shifting volume of Disney "guests." And longer waits are unavoidable at some of the more popular rides.
That's when other guestology strategies come in.
No. 2. Give them entertainment.
"People who wait 30 minutes feel as if it's 45 minutes, but if they're being entertained, it can feel like less," says Mr. Shacklett. Well-designed sideshows in the waiting area can "set the mood" for the main event.
No. 3. Hide the queue from view, so people aren't scared off.
"Some attractions have been designed to conceal the queue," says Mr. Shacklett. Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, "has this huge hidden queue area, and people don't realize it" until, after already having waited in line, they enter it. But it's not total deception; signs are updated to indicate how long the delay will be, a tactic Mr. Shacklett and Mr. Larson say generally mollifies customers.
One line or more?
While there are many debates about the merits of queuing variations, one ongoing argument pits the single snake-like queue found in most banks and fast-food restaurants against the multiple lines still found in McDonald's, for example.
On average, Mr. Larson says, the wait is about the same. In multiple lines, there is more chance that either you'll be served ahead of people who got there before you but are stuck in slower lines, or that you'll be the one standing behind "the Little League coach ordering for his whole team."
The single queue, he says, fosters "social justice" because the first-come, first-served principle is never violated.
"I like the snake lines," he added, "but my wife, who's spent a lot of time in New York, likes the free-form system. She's more aggressive, and she beats everybody" to the service counter."