Saturday, December 20, 2008

Line Compression

We all like to get ahead. We like to move forward. This is the explanation, I think, for something I noticed while traveling recently. A phenomenon I shall call “line compression.”

My husband and I were flying, this time, as paid passengers—not airline employees on stand-by. We were standing in line (on line, the translation for you Brits out there) waiting to check-in for our flight. It was a week before Christmas, so it was like watching amateur night: the woman flying to Thailand without a visa, the family trying to check ten cardboard boxes filled with consumer electronics, the woman re-packing her ginormous bag in an attempt to get the weight down below fifty pounds. Although, judging from its size, I think the bag alone must have weighed fifty pounds.

About thirty people were waiting in line and only three agents were working the counter, all three of them absorbed with the above mentioned passengers (and sometimes all three of them absorbed with the woman going to Thailand without her visa). However, after about twenty minutes of standing in line, I’d noticed the line had moved forward considerably, that we were now about twenty paces further along than when we’d entered. In fact, we’d turned a corner! Everyone likes to turn a corner. It’s a milestone. A sign of progress!

But I also noticed the guy that had been at the front of the line when we’d gotten into line, was still at the front of the line now. In other words, no one had moved any closer to getting waited on by an agent. We’d all simply moved closer, literally. Line compression.

And it continued. For twenty more minutes. Everyone, about every five minutes or so, would shuffle forward a few inches, pulling or kicking their bags along with them. Progress!

Wow. This is cool. Some kind of weird psychology lesson. Okay, I know, in the great scheme of things, maybe not so cool or interesting even, but hey, what else did I have to do while waiting in line. Remember, traveling for me, without a uniform on, is a special treat. I’m no longer the one being watched. It’s me that gets to do the people watching for a change.

Now, lest you think this “line compression” phenomenon is exclusive to that one line, to that one early morning flight on Airline “A,” let me assure you, my very scientific study was quite thorough. I observed line compression in many lines on many airlines. Specifically Airlines “A,” “B” and “C.” Another observation, the longer the wait, the more severe line compression becomes. We waited in one line, (sadly, a line to check-in for my airline) for well over an hour. As the wait became more and more arduous to endure (fifty people in line and one woman working the counter and absolutely no progress for twenty minutes at a time) we became more and more packed together, until, for a moment, I thought the woman behind me might climb up on top of me and demand a piggy back ride.

This all has me wondering, does line compression occur elsewhere? At the bank, or the grocery store? The carwash, maybe? Perhaps it does. I will boldly continue my research—the next time I’m in a line with nothing better to do than study the psychology of bogus human progress. Right now, at home, I simply want to decompress.