The evolution of airport queuing – go virtual?

Meghan Hussey by Meghan Hussey | Apr 12, 2021

There is a good chance that in the past week even with COVID regulations in place, you’ve waited in a line – whether it’s at the drive-thru, in traffic, or at the grocery store. We spend a good portion of our lives just waiting.

There are numerous existing statistics that reveal we spend anywhere from five to seven years waiting in lines in our lifetime. Compare that to the averages of spending six years of our lives consuming food and drink and another four years doing chores around the house, suddenly waiting in line gains a whole new meaning as it can truly affect our quality of life.

Most of us hate waiting, it’s boring or even annoying if you’re impatient, but why do we do it? “The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting anyway,” American artist, Andy Warhol, wrote in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. “Never getting in is the most exciting, but after that, waiting to get in is the most exciting.”

The most magical line on earth

When considering the science behind waiting and the art of queuing (when someone really gets it right, like perfect one-person lines in Japan, it’s an artform), no one thinks about these two factors more than Disney. Every year, millions of guests wait for hours and hours to get onto a ride at Disney World. Typically, the sight of a long line is stress inducing, so each ride has a serpentine queue (common queue type for airports).

Serpentine queues create a bit of an illusion to how long the line truly is. There are also a lot of distractions for the guests while they are waiting (Space Mountain has over 80 game stations before the ride).

Thinking back to Warhol’s quote, people wait because it’s the prize at the end that makes all of that “wasted” time worth it.

Figure 1 above shows a recent queue at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA

So, with all that information, what can airports learn from Disney? Don’t expect game stations or entertaining distractions anytime soon, but the security checkpoints could definitely use a redesign. Depending on where you live, when you arrive at an airport and go through the screening process, it can all look very different.

Automate, automate, automate

A great example when mentioning automation is what is happening in Europe – automation is everywhere. Most airports allow you to self-scan multiple times throughout the journey. Starting at baggage drop to security to boarding.

This is in contrast to the U.S, where a lot of the journey is still very manual and it is typical for a person to check your ID and boarding pass. Also, many European airports will assign passengers to a specific letter, colour, or number which represents a space on the conveyer belt when they are putting their belongings to get screened. This tends to reduce the amount of bottlenecks that occur because a larger amount of people can load up their bins at the same time.

The security screening process really hasn’t changed much since 2001 when everything was reformed following 9/11, and passengers then had to have their belongings scanned and walk through a metal detector.

But since COVID-19, the conversation about the future of queuing at airports has been a hot topic. Here’s one major way to revolutionize how airports queue.

Virtual queues

Airports have been trying to utilize every inch/centimeter of space available for quite some time now, the more passengers they can fit comfortably, the more passengers they can serve. Airlines, such as Delta, were some of the first stakeholders to put these types of queues into practice by notifying passengers when their seat is boarding on the airline’s native mobile app.

How this practice could be adopted in the security checkpoint would work in a few different ways:

  1. If lines are long and the passenger doesn’t want to wait, they could join the virtual queue when they arrive at the airport by scanning a QR code that is displayed on signage. This would be ideal for airports that have amenities pre-security so that the passenger(s) could grab food or shop before it is their turn to enter the queue.
  2. Passengers are assigned a specific time to arrive to the queue based on when they check-in for their flight (24 hours before the flight departs). This would require a partnership with the airline in order to streamline the process. The passenger could either accept the time they are given or choose another time slot based on availability. There needs to be some flexibility with this option as there are many different traveler profiles (i.e. families that show up three or four hours prior to their flight departing, or the traveller who prefers to spend as little time as possible at the airport and shows up basically when their flight is boarding at the gate).
Figure 2 shows rendering of virtual queuing options using checkpoint timeslot reservations and QR codes

By implementing this approach in the security checkpoints, it could help to alleviate unsafe and uncomfortable landside crowding as well as increase spend at the retail shops pre-screening.

So far, there haven’t been many airports that have taken on this challenge to disrupt the security checkpoints. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, who recently put out an RFP looking for vendors who could implement virtual queuing at their checkpoint, will be one of the first in the United States to pilot this type of technology. It will be exciting to see how this project turns out for them and who else will follow in their footsteps and offer a different way to queue.

Keeping passengers happy is the objective

At the end of the day, the reason why it’s so important for airports to keep evolving their processes is to keep passengers happy.

When they can spend less time waiting in lines, and more time relaxing, shopping, eating, and drinking, airports could just possibly rival Disney as “the most magical place on earth”.

The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

Meghan Hussey

Meghan Hussey

Meghan manages Xovis’ portfolio of US airport customers such as San Francisco International Airport, Dallas Fort Worth International, LaGuardia Airport, and Seattle-Tacoma International where they are using Xovis people flow technology to ensure a smooth journey throughout the facility. Prior to joining Xovis, Meghan led the Account Management team at AwareManager, a Boston based facility management software company for some of the world’s most recognized properties and stadiums. She holds a BA in Communication and Media Studies from the University of Southern Maine and a Master’s degree in Education from Cambridge College.
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