There aren’t many pleasures left in flying these days, but one of them occurs even before you’re on the plane. What’s more it’s free. It’s the smug sense of satisfaction you get from watching everyone else at the departure gate stand up and form a queue as soon as the flight is called. Bags are grabbed, elbows are readied and the entire heaving mass arranges itself into a line. People rush to be first, manoeuvring themselves past each other, desperately holding places for the rest of the family while hissing ‘come on, Brian, hurry up!’ Flights are normally so full, and seating areas so small, that the queue has to wind back on itself several times, snaking round and round and finally ending up somewhere about three gates down. And all of this achieves – absolutely nothing.
You already have an allocated seat, fools. It doesn’t matter how long you stand there, you’re still going to end up in 23C. Why not chill out with your coffee and your Stieg Larsson and enjoy the only bit of legroom you’ll get for the next three hours? The one remaining argument for being first onto the plane – grabbing extra space in the overhead lockers – disappeared years ago, when hand luggage allowances came down to the size of a crisp packet.
But no, still they queue. They have to, for no better reason than ‘everyone else is doing it’. FOMO is never more marked than in a queue – your fear about missing out on something is all the greater because the something is out of sight, at the other end of a long line of people who got there before you did. No one ever stops to think ‘hang on, this makes no sense whatsoever’. Or almost no one: the few exceptions, I’ve noticed, tend to be 20-somethings busily working on their Macbook Airs.
In fact you don’t have to wait at the gate at all. You can enjoy a bit more time at the bar, or perusing duty free. The plane isn’t going to leave without you, unless you really push your luck – they’ll send you a reminder over the tannoy. Roger Alton of this manor attracted the nickname ‘Passenger’, so frequently did the call ring out: ‘Would Passenger Alton please make his way to …’ Meanwhile Peter Noone never quite recovered from the tannoy announcement (some time after the height of his pop stardom): ‘Would Mr No One …’
Such is the lunacy of departure gate queues that in 2015 Danish researchers cited them in a revolutionary proposal: the next person to be served should be the last in the queue, rather than the first. Having experimented with different methods of reducing queue lengths, they found this worked best. People knew it was pointless arriving too early, so staggered their arrivals. It wouldn’t work for every situation – but the academics gave departure gates as an example of where it would be perfect.
In the meantime, the craziness will continue. So you can carry on displaying that twist on traditional Britishness – instead of queuing, enjoy watching other people queue.