Airports Failing of Waiting Lines

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Some while ago Don Norman wrote an article called ‘The Psychology of Wating Lines.’ In it he described how to make the necessary experience of waiting pleasurable. For the past eight months I’ve experienced quite some delays on the airport…. So I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to write how airports and airlines fail Don Norman’s methods to create an enjoyable experience.
For those not familiar with the work, I highly suggest you read it in full (pdf). To summarize though, Norman points out eight key factors to create a pleasant experience:

1. Emotions Dominate

2. Eliminate Confusion

3. The Wait Must Be Appropriate

4. Set Expectations, then meet or exceed them

5. Keep People Occupied

6. Be Fair

7. End Strong, Start Strong

8. Memory is More Important than the Experience

Let’s compare every one of them with my past experiences:

Emotions Dominate

No one likes having their luggage rummaged through by strangers, taking on and off their shoes, or being barked orders by a crackling intercom. On the plane, no one wants to breath stale air and have an infant with the ear infection across the aisle to them.

Add bright colors, XM Radio, and free TV and there is still no way to ease the pain of travel.

Eliminate Confusion

Norman states designers must create a clear, unambiguous model of the system in place and to notify customers of changes immediately.

Each airline attempts to do this with dozens of variations of signage: there is no consistency. Force the customer to check dated and glaring TV monitors for flight status updates and emotions quickly turn from annoyed to temperamental. Consistency is key. A lack of airline loyalty in exchange for price shopping creates hostility towards airlines at a time when people are already stressed.

The Wait Must Be Appropriate

I spend half of each day I travel waiting. Waiting in the car or bus, in line at security, at the gate, the tarmac, or the arrival gate waiting for a landing crew. Rationale reasons such as weather and security aside, the time wasted doing nothing is unreasonable. Individually accepted, the combined delays create an unacceptable experience. Why must I arrive at the airport early to avoid a long security line to sit and wait for the plane at the gate to then wait to take off? Airport: explain this to me.

Set Expectations, then Meet or Exceed Them

Why must I first give kudos to an airline that over the past few years increased estimated flight time in an attempt to account for expected delays? That being said, the arrival of the airplane means nothing as to when you will board… And the idea of being next in line to take off is relative at best.

Keep People Occupied

The need to turn of electronics fights this principle. I agree mobile phones should not be used in planes for the same reason they should not be used on buses, open train cars, or elevators. The original fear that technology will interfere with electronics has been generally debunked over the last few years (since initially drafting this article, some airlines have begun offering WiFi in-flight). With that in mind, we should be encouraged and not denied the chance to play on our PSP, Nintendo DS, or iPhone (airplane mode enabled of course). Norman discusses how filled time passes more quickly and this should be an easy fix for airlines.

Be Fair

My gripe with fairness and airlines has no obvious remedy as it is generally a matter of public safety. Still, cutting in lines to try to get a different flight back on schedule, circling in the air waiting to land, and the express security lane that is sporadically opened to the public all go against a customers mental model of what a fair action is. There is also no semblance of fairness to the customer delayed five hours, sees two flights pass him by to his destination, only to be sitting next to the two people from those flights who got paid to be bumped.

End Strong, Start Strong

This ties into the length of waiting in lines and unfilled time. The middle of the flight is the most entertaining portion of travel. We can use our electronics, get up and stretch and have some control over our bodies. Probably most helpful to the flight is the fact that customers are being given mental satisfaction they are en route to their destination. Now there is no possible way to change the order of events so much that the experience would benefit from putting all the useless waiting in the middle. We can however change the individual experiences involved with each.

Memory is More Important than the Experience

Make a list of things that describe an airline and you will come up with surcharges, delays, surly customer service and more. These notions and thoughts have developed over years of interacting with airports. There is no silver bullet to erase these memories and it is only time and small incremental movements in the right direction that will remedy this issue.


I can not help but feel a lot of the negative status the airlines get is a part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Customers arrive expecting delays and poor service, and airline representatives are expecting disgruntled and irritated passengers. As the point about memory discusses, incremental steps are needed to improve the experience. While I believe Interaction Design has the chance to address the interfaces for airline employees and customers alike, I think there are easier steps to be made by simply providing more transparent communication with customers and willing to have a more open dialogue. Expectations are the key to all interactions and by creating an honest level of communication everything else will ultimately fall into place.

David Farkas

David is an interaction(s) designer working in the online and mobile realm. He focuses on the relation between the digital and the physical. Usability, goal oriented design, and consistency are key.

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