Wait For It

Let’s wager a guess over something that happened to you in the past few days. It probably happened several times in the past few days. It wasn’t by choice, nor were you alone.  It might even be happening right now. What is this recurring, oft-maddening event in your daily world (and mine)? Somewhere, for some good reason, in person or in the car, deliberately or unintentionally, you found yourself waiting in line.

Call it a common courtesy or call it the primary by-product of consumer demand. Waiting in line is a timeless (or time-wasting) necessary evil with no satisfactory alternative.  While the world behaves efficiently with smartphones, computers and even data-consuming “IoT” appliances, those snaking, switch-backing, several-option, several-category lines of humans seem to grow ever longer.  Including traffic on the highways – another version of waiting – you’ll spend one to two years of your life in line.

Consider some of the common reasons why we wait in line:
– store cashiers
– airport security
– phone calls (on hold)
– amusement parks
– voting
– public restrooms

If I wrote this post fifty years ago, I would’ve listed the very same reasons why we wait in line.  We have options now, but let’s face it; those options are waiting-in-line in disguise.  Store cashiers now work side-by-side with an area of self-check-out machines (which draws its own line).  Airports promote pay-for lines like TSA Pre and CLEAR.  Telephone on-hold mechanisms offer callbacks instead of waiting (“for an additional $0.75”).  Disneyland installed “FastPass” lines; again, for a fee.  Voting can be done by mail (forcing your ballot to wait in line instead of you).  And public restrooms?  Okay, there’s no option to waiting for the potty.  Maybe reconsider that second beer.

The Brits refer to a line of people as a queue.  I like that (and not just because we need more words beginning with the letter “q”).  Leave it to those on the far side of the pond to class up the most mundane activity imaginable.  At least we have our phones as distractions when we “queue”.  But the old-fashioned distractions still work.  It’s why they put candy bars by the cashiers, magazines in the waiting room, mirrors by the elevators, and televisions in the airport.  Anything to help you forget you’re waiting in line.

Julio C. Negron

You’d think waiting in line is mindless – no-brainer science really – but I have experienced flaws in the system.  Recently in Lowe’s, waiting patiently in a single, central line at the self-check-out area, I was confronted by the person behind me, who demanded I “choose one side or the other” (as if logic demanded a separate line for each row of self-check-out machines).  My response to him was not one of my finer moments.  Another example – at the airport – my wife and I waited at the curb with a dozen others for the parking lot shuttle, only to discover the “front of the line” was a variable determined by the point on the curb where the driver chooses to stop his vehicle.  If you want to see what not waiting in line looks like, try to catch a parking lot shuttle at the airport.

In today’s world, we have new reasons why we wait in line:
– to purchase the latest iPhone
– at restaurants, with pagers (clever disguise for waiting in line)
on-line (i.e. for concert tickets or sports tickets at a specified time)
– Black Friday sales

Finally, we will always stand in line for our kids, whether to see Santa Claus at the mall or to buy something they simply must have.  Years ago, I remember taking my kids to the local bookstore for the latest “Harry Potter” (which they started and finished before the next sunrise).  It was the only time I’ve stood in line for the right to stand in line again.  The bookstore insisted on selling a limited number of tickets at noon, to be exchanged for the book later that same day, when the publisher allowed its release.

I believe the longest I’ve ever waited in line is five hours – to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977.  With no electronic devices to keep my friends and I company back then, five hours was even longer than it sounds, especially knowing two consecutive showings of the movie would run before I even entered the theater.  Then again, the truly morbid among us believe we are all simply waiting to die.  If that’s the case, let’s hope we’re in a really, really long line.

Bad Check

Last week I flew to Indiana for a conference, connecting briefly through Chicago O’Hare.  After finally touching down and exiting the tiny plane, I noticed a cluster of passengers right there in the jet bridge, waiting for luggage to be brought up the stairs.  I headed to the baggage claim area instead, where the rest of us watched the carousel lumber round and round.  The minutes passed interminably as the belt continued its relentless rotation; passengers leaving one-by-one with their bags.  Suddenly everything came to a grinding halt, and the carousel let out its big, mechanical sigh.  I found myself in the quiet and solitary confinement of an empty claim area.  My luggage?  Nowhere to be found.

The airlines advertise a ton of performance statistics, but here’s a new one on me: rate of mishandled bags.  For every passenger who files a lost-luggage report, the carrier gets a ding.  That ding is well-deserved, representing the stress of lost luggage, the hassle of filing a report in one of those stuffy little offices, and the inevitable delay reuniting with your bag.  Not that it happens very often.  According to the following chart – part of a Wall Street Journal article – American Airlines reports a mere 2.8 incidents of lost luggage per 1,000 passengers.  But hold the phone, folks – there’s more to the losing than meets the eye.  Turns out American (and most other airlines) avoid a lost-luggage ding if they alert you to the “mishandled” bag.  Today’s smart tags make it easy to track the bag (even if it’s heading in a different direction than you are).  So that bit of information – proactively communicated in a text or email – avoids a bad stat.  And that’s why the chart below shows a dramatic improvement in August.  American Airlines started its proactive notification process the month prior.

I don’t choose my airline according to “rate of mishandled bags” (or any other statistic for that matter – it’s all about the ticket price), but I have observed the adjusted behavior of others.  Carry-on baggage is all the rage now, in brand-new shapes and sizes.  Look around next time you board a plane and count how many passengers violate the airline’s carry-on policy.  The person with the roll-y suitcase and oversized backpack is probably one bag over the limit.  The person with the valise slightly larger than the space “under the seat in front of you” probably should’ve checked it.  But chances are the flight attendant won’t make a fuss, at the risk of negative publicity.

Speaking of backpacks, the oversized versions seem to be all the rage these days; far surpassing the number of “wheelies” and “over-the-shoulder’s” so common with past generations.  It’s like everyone’s back in high school again.

Here’s another trend.  Passengers carry-on instead of checking, knowing there isn’t enough room in the overhead bins.  Once the bins are full, they surrender their bags at the end of the jet bridge instead, for attendants to tromp down the stairs and into the belly of the plane.  After landing, the process works in reverse (thus the cluster of passengers on my recent flight).  But credit to these travel warriors; they avoid $50 of baggage fees, as well as smashing bags into overhead bins (which always brings to mind square pegs and round holes).

One more trend.  Airlines are shifting the baggage-check process into the hands of travelers.  At self-check-in, the kiosk now dispenses a bag tag along with the boarding pass.  You attach the tag to the bag.  You haul the bag to the belt, where – in some cases – you place the bag on the belt.  Congratulations – you’re an airline employee working free of charge.  You might even be helping the airline avoid a mishandled bag stat.

My own lost-luggage story had a happier-than-expected ending.  At the baggage service office, the attendant took my tag into the back, reappearing moments later with my bag.  Turns out my suitcase flew on another plane, arriving at my same destination before I did (explain that bit of magic, please).  Crisis averted, but instead I lost my excuse to go purchase a suitcase of new clothes.