Queue tips from Dr. Queue

Peter Horner, editor

In the weeks leading up to Memorial Day weekend, hardly a day went by without the mainstream media in U.S. cities with major international airports sending a reporter, film crew or photographer to the city’s airport to document the incredibly long lines of passengers trying to get through TSA checkpoints. The reporters inevitably reported that if you think this is bad, just wait until the Memorial Day weekend. Cue Dr. Queue.

Dick Larson, aka “Dr. Queue,” is a professor at MIT and a past president of INFORMS whose career has focused on operations research as applied to services industries. Larson’s many years of research on queues has made him the go-to guy for reporters looking for an expert on the science, psychology and pain of long lines, whether it’s waiting for an elevator, a Disney World ride, a grocery store check-out or an airport check-in.

Right on cue, reporters from several major media outlets began checking in with Dr. Queue for his thoughts on the airport issues in May. I live in the Atlanta area, and ATL suffered some of the longest queues in the country, a situation aggravated by the closing of a key security checkpoint for renovations and restructuring in May.

Like other reporters, I planned to ask Dr. Queue whether I really needed to waste three hours of my life hanging around the airport to ensure that I made my next flight. But other reporters beat me to the punch. Turns out Dr. Queue had already been interviewed by several members of the media on this very subject.

In a May 17 posting, WBEZ in Chicago introduced a lengthy interview with Larson as follows: “No doubt plenty of laymen in lines at O’Hare and Midway are whittling away the hours pointing out ways their lines could be moving faster. So, do they have a point? We ask an expert on ‘queuing theory’ about the best ways to organize and manage lines in public places like airports. Dick Larson is a professor of engineering systems at MIT, but we like his superhero name much better: Dr. Queue.”

In a May 18 posting on the Science of Us entitled “The Strange Science of Why Airport Security Lines Spiral Out of Control,” writer Drake Baer notes: “A lot of this, Larson says, has to do with the profoundly human quality of variability. If queues were mechanical – like in a well-run factory, where the time of arrival and the time of service for each transaction were highly predictable – then a server could be super busy and queues still wouldn’t form.”

In a May 20 online article for NBC News, reporter Harriet Baskas writes that [Larson] “says the circus entertainers, therapy ponies, live music and free snacks some airports are offering to those waiting in long checkpoints lines could backfire. It works for Disney in the amusement parks, said Larson. But passengers who miss flights due to long checkpoint lines may end up being more furious ‘because they’ll feel like they were being distracted from what’s really important – getting on the plane.’ ”

As for ATL, airport officials brought in a bunch of additional TSA folks, reopened the checkpoint, and waiting lines were reduced to 15 or 20 minutes over the dreaded Memorial weekend. Now why didn’t I think of that?

— Peter Horner, editor