Sunday, 1 January 2012

Airport Baggage Carousels: Applying the Wrong Rule

     The emerging theme of this blog seems to be pointing out ways in which we often approach problems with the wrong assumptions, often informed by the language we choose to describe them. This post is no exception, although it's not so much about using the wrong language as the wrong behavioural rule.

     I always find it frustrating waiting for my luggage at a baggage carousel, because everyone crowds up as close as they can to the point where the baggage emerges, and then claim places along the track to wait for their baggage to come to them. Of course, the baggage doesn't come out in the same order as the people lined up to receive it, so the first one in line doesn't really enjoy a significant advantage in terms of waiting; they just don't have to watch their baggage move along the track for as long as someone at the other end. And crowding in to the track so as to be able to grab your luggage as soon as it reaches you doesn't really gain you much anywhere along the carousel, since you'll often be jostled by people squeezing past to get their luggage which, in defiance of your place in line, seems to have come out before yours.

    The error in thinking here is pretty obvious. We are all accustomed to forming lines to wait, and when we wait for our luggage, we unconsciously slip into queue-forming mode, establishing rights of priority by arriving first and so forth. For a lot of things, this simple rule is actually a rather equitable; a person who has been waiting longer probably deserves to be served before someone who only just arrived. But in the case of the baggage carousel, this priority is irrelevant, because the order in which the baggage emerges is utterly unrelated to the sequence in which passengers arrive to claim it. And in fact, the queue-forming instinct actually introduces a lot of unnecessary delay and inefficiency into the baggage carousel system.

    Think how much more efficient the process would be if everyone just stood back ten feet or so from the carousel, and only approached it when they saw their luggage emerge. There'd be lots of room for them to check the label and claim their bag, and get out of the way for the next person. Most people would be able to claim their bags almost as soon as they appeared, and not have to wait for it to slowly make its way around the whole carousel to the position in line they managed to lay claim to in the queueing-up process.

    I suspect most people realize this, and would be happy to stand back a reasonable distance from the carousel, but unfortunately it only takes one person to trigger the queuing behaviour, and then a sort of Prisoner's Dilemma takes over: you may know perfectly well that you'll get better results if you all cooperate, but if anyone defects, then you're all better off defecting. And so we all crowd in around to claim our place in a non-line that just slows everything down for everyone and adds inconvenience and stress to the already inconvenient and stressful business of travel by air.

    I wonder if it would help to put up signs or mark off the ground with masking tape or something?


  1. It would certainly help the passengers if the airport authority were to post signs and mark off the ground. But this procedure would not help the airport authority, because then the waiting passengers would take up twice as much space.

  2. Space is certainly a consideration, and I considered mentioning it in my post, but ended up forgetting to say anything about it before I posted. It's true that the crowds would take up more space, if they stood back from the carousel, but I don't think it would be quite twice as much. Moreover, a bit of strategically reserved space for collecting baggage and getting out of the way would likely reduce the crowding overall, because passengers would be taking up space in the area for considerably less time.

  3. It's not conditioning, though you're kind to explain it that way. The scene at the carousel is actually the final leg of a narcissistic, passive aggressive adventure that began with an identical gaggle huddled around the cordons during the boarding process.

    It always occur the same way. The people at the front of the crowd are invariably those ticket holders who will sit in the back of the jet. The airline's "club" members have to negotiate a path past these people, and on it goes.

    As each subsequent section is called to board, a frenzy ensues to be the first person of your section through the gate. However, you're stopped about twenty feet before your section, because the passengers from the previous section are still cramming their overstuffed luggage and plush dolls into the overhead bins --those of particular savvy choosing to fill the bins of sections who have yet to board-- and, completely oblivious to anyone behind them, take their sweet time (studies abound to suggest that those who notice people behind them will actually take longer). This process will repeat once the flight is over.

    It's not really about conditioning or efficiency. It's about being the guy or gal making other people wait instead of having to wait.

    I've taken to killing time after each flight. Instead of having to see the automatons I've tolerated the last 3-12 hours, I go to the duty-free, lavatory or otherwise amuse myself until luggage has arrived. By the time I get there, my things are generally the last on the carousel, and everyone else is gone. Thank goodness, because if that lady in front of me who doused herself with two bottles of Eau de Stench blossom prior to the flight was hovering around, I might just tell her what I really thought...

  4. I disagree, for the most part. Sure, there are competitive, arrogant twits who get a thrill out of making someone else wait longer, but I don't think it really gets us very far to assume that's what underlies this behaviour. For one thing, as they say, "Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by ignorance." For another, the malice hypothesis admits of no solution, whereas making people aware of the error of thinking does give some hope of solving the problem.

    Much of the time, this kind of behaviour is not so much motivated by a desire to inconvenience others as it is a desire to minimize one's own inconvenience. In fact, that's what annoys me so much about it, because the very behaviour intended to benefit the actor actually works against his or her interest if you stop to think about it reflectively. If the guy crowding up to the front of the carousel actually gained something from it, that would be one thing, but in fact they usually gain nothing, and end up being more inconvenienced by having other people (whose bags arrive earlier) shoulder through.

    So my hope is that if people realize that they are better off, individually and collectively, standing back a few paces, they'll do so even if for purely selfish reasons. If people are going to reliably act out of self-interest, I'd rather it be enlightened than ignorant.

  5. "Much of the time, this kind of behaviour is not so much motivated by a desire to inconvenience others as it is a desire to minimize one's own inconvenience."

    To which I add an ellipsis, include "well aware that they inconvenience others in the process" and affirm my previous statement, though in jest.

    Naturally my cynical outlook is going to clash with your humanistic perspective. But I hope not to get lost in that, or let that be the only thing taken from my comment. Instead, it is my suggestion that if you wish to deconstruct the events occurring at the carousel in a complete way, with a suggested remedy, that you start at the beginning at the flight rather than the end. Dare I say the overlaps are undeniable?

  6. Well, I hadn't really considered the influence of the flight experience before the baggage claim process, and you're right that the stress and inconvenience of travel will certainly leave many passengers with depleted stores of patience, which makes it even harder for them to approach the carousel with a reflective big-picture attitude. And it may well be that the twit who claims the first place along the carousel just doesn't care about the whole process; he's got his place, and screw everyone else.

    But there will ALWAYS be people like that, who are too belligerently selfish to play fair. There's not a lot we can do about such people, but they're not the ones I hope to persuade. If we can get a critical mass of reasonable people to recognize the benefits of standing a few feet back from the carousel, many of the crowders will be shamed into conformity, and those few who remain will impose less of a delay on the rest of us.