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How to put an end to queues

Imagine you arrive at the airport and you are way too early for your flight. You check in, walk through security and find yourself to be the first person at the gate. There’s another 1hr to go before your flight leaves and you sit down near the counter that will guide you towards the plane in an hours time. You position yourself so that you will be the first in line to board. Just under an hour later, the announcement is made that the flight is ready to board and you leap up to take the number 1 spot. You feel really happy about yourself and can’t wait to be seated in your squishy airplane armchair.
But hang on. The ground crew walks right past you and up to the very last person in the queue and asks for their boarding pass. They tell them to follow them back to the counter and allow them to board the plane. You cannot believe what is happening… ‘I was first in line!’ you think to yourself. ‘How could they have not seen that?!’ You tell yourself that the passenger was probably a VIP or something. But then it happens again, and again and again. You are now furious and think that the airport staff have made a grave injustice to you.
Will you think twice about getting to the airport early next time? I bet you will, and these Danish researchers have had very positive results when testing the ‘last-come-first-serve’ method. It’s more efficient and will prevent bottle necks from being created. A huge improvement to the very common ‘first-come-first-serve’ method.

In a ‘first-come-first-serve’ scenario, there is a lot of incentive to arrive early and form a queue, as one will be the first person to enter whilst later arrivals will have to wait for their turn, thereby forming one or many queues. The researchers argue that on a ‘last-come-first-serve’ basis, there is no incentive to arrive early and start a queue, causing rational agents to want to arrive on-time or later (i.e. anything but arriving early). And it also makes complete sense on a common sense basis. Why would you rock up early if you’re going to be a lot better off arriving on time or later?
In an airport, passengers having checked in and passed through security would be able to take their time a bit more, maybe browse the shops, read books, generally could be a little bit less rushed about life pre-boarding. It is rather silly when I think about the times I have sat at the gate staring intently at the airport staff with an excruciatingly painful expression on my face, jumping up and racing to be at the front of the queue when the counter opens. Judging by my many competitors in this race, I’m not the only one who thinks like that.

Airports would love to trial the ‘last-come-first-serve’ method as this would mean people spending more time in money in shops, filling the airport operators coffers via increased rents for shops. The natural losers of this scenario would be the budget airline industry which loves to charge extra for speedy boarding. A whole way of earning extra revenue gone, because rational people would refuse to queue right?
Looking at life in general though, wouldn’t you feel like you had more time if you knew that arriving late would mean you would be let in straight away? If you knew that arriving late to the cinema or that really popular restaurant where everyone has to queue, would not be an issue because you’d be let in straight away (or would at least be first in the queue (for lack of a better word)). For one you wouldn’t have to rush (unless e.g. you’re actually close to missing the film) and could do something you enjoy for those extra 15-30min you would otherwise spend queueing.

In some cases in the real world, the ‘last-come-first-serve’ already exists. Think about last-minute travel where in certain situations you can nab flights for less than 50% of what they would have cost 3 months ago. Usually any kind of fire sale also follows that model, where the fire sale purchaser can often get prices far below what a normal shopper would get. These examples are inherently risky though, as for example you are not guaranteed to get a seat on a flight to your destination of choice.

I find this type of research fascinating as it questions basic assumptions with fairly basic questions and causes us to at least contemplate different perspectives and ways of doing things. Ultimately, I doubt that we would ever adopt a ‘last-come-first-serve’ methodology in a widespread manner. Mankind has the potential to drop one of the most annoying aspects of every day life. We could put an end to the queue! However, the ‘first-come-first-serve’ way of operating is seen as fair despite being less efficient and arguably more stressful. Moreover, humans are probably so utterly conditioned to forming a queue that I could imagine people queueing anyway (in a ‘last-come-first-serve’ scenario) regardless of the fact that they would be at a disadvantage to late comers. After all, it is very apparent that humans are not rational agents as much as we may think we are. There are examples all over.

Happy Monday!

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  1. But, even if they serve the last person to arrive first, the people who arrived earlier would still be forming a queue. Either way, it comes down to the boarding staff not being able to process more than a few passengers at a time.
    This also ignored the fact that any really late comers will delay the whole flight causing queues in the broader system, airplanes taking off and landing.
    Also, what is the point in queueing before the gate has even opened?! The plane will only take off once all the passengers have boarded. Either way you will be waiting before boarding or after boarding. If you get a seat at the gate I far prefer, just to sit and relax with a book or magazine instead of standing in a queue.
    Still an interesting thought that offers a different perspective and the possibility of thinking about things in a different way.

    • What a topic for discussion!!
      This is an excellent brain exercise!

      I can see me laughing myself silly watching a “queue” of people constantly trying to be the last one in line …..
      A research experiment is one thing. Reality is another.

      Thank you for the mental stimulation 😉