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The decision of when to get in line to board a plane can be a contentious one, but it shouldn’t be.
While gate agents will give clear, boarding group-specific directions, there remains a strong contingent of passengers who either get in line before they’re called or wait in their seats until they’re the last to board. While the latter type of traveller often hangs back to avoid standing in line altogether, the motives driving the former group can be harder to place.
Airline employees even have a nickname for these types of flyers: gate lice.
“Gate lice” in action.Credit: iStock
Drake Castañeda, a former gate agent and current corporate communications manager at Delta Air Lines, speculated excitement as a possible cause. “If you’re at the airport, you’re ready to get where you’re trying to go, so you’re just antsy and anticipating the travel experience,” he said. “For me, even as a traveller, if I know I’m going to be sitting on a plane, especially for longer flights, I like standing.”
But while Castañeda said it’s nice to stretch your legs, standing in line early can mean extra bumps in the boarding process. Passengers getting in line too early can lead to congested airport walkways, longer wait times for boarding groups who were actually called and general confusion.
If you’ve ever wondered why people are lining up early, there’s a psychological perspective on the method to the madness.
Psychology experts pointed to two potential explanations for why passengers get in line early: conformity and competition.
“People use other people as sources of information both about what the right thing to do is and about what everyone else is doing,” said Shira Gabriel, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo in New York State.
Both of those things are happening at an airport when travellers get in line early. The first person who stands up gives others information about how they can and should behave, which leads more people to stand up and join them, thus convincing more to join in a constant information feedback loop.
“People will do any weird thing if they think that’s the way to behave,” Gabriel explained. “When you see people lining up, getting ready, it makes you feel there’s a benefit for that.”
And increasingly, airline policy is such that there can be a real, tangible benefit to lining up early. Flights can be full, or even overbooked, which can lead to a sense of pressure among travellers to claim their space early. Airlines forcing flyers to gate-check passengers’ carry-ons because of “full” overhead bins, for example, means that being the last passenger to board when one group is called (rather than the first to board with the next group) can be the difference between keeping your carry-on and not.
When there are limited resources, Gabriel said, it can be logical to want to get in line early. That’s especially true for travellers who have tight connecting flights or valuables in their carry-ons, as the risk of losing them or having to wait at baggage claim brings bigger problems.
“The consequence of these structural [airline] issues is that they set up uncertainty (on any flight, I might have problems) and competition (this is a zero-sum game: others getting on with bags lowers the chance of me getting on with bags),” Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said. “This leads to anxiety and antagonism.” The antagonism is what motivates people to line up even if it means cutting in front of people.
Reicher, who studies group behaviour, added that because of that uncertainty, the consequences of not acting like there’s competition when there is can feel greater than the consequences of acting like there’s competition when there isn’t.
“In the case of the former, you might miss your flight and miss your connection at the other end, in the case of the latter you have stood up for a few minutes for no good reason,” he said.
“There are social costs to factor in: To be last in the queue and have to give up your bags makes you a real mug,” he added.
As more people line up, the dangers associated with not lining up (losing your bag or missing a connection, for example) become more real. “Queuing may be dysfunctional but it is not irrational. What people do makes perfect sense given the context they are in,” Reicher said.
Castañeda warned, however, that while standing in line early may make sense, it “does not expedite the [boarding] process.” In fact, it might slow things down.
“I’ve seen cases before where there’s too many people who are standing and congregating in the gate area. That can slow down the process for those who are boarding and waiting in line,” he said. Those extra people can cause confusion for passengers who should be boarding and crowd the space for those who need to board first, like wheelchair users.
At the end of the day, the conformity and the competition are inextricably connected.
“We evolved as a species that can only survive in collectives. And part of being that incredibly social species means that we look to other people for how to behave,” Gabriel said. “So, maybe the first people who are getting up are worried about their bags … And all it takes is those couple of people, and then everybody takes that and learns from them how to behave in that situation and gets up as well.”
The Washington Post
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