In the early 2000s, the management at Houston airport was dismayed by the number of passenger complaints it was receiving.
The main issue was delays at the baggage carousel: by this point passengers were often at the end of their tether and even trivial delays tested their patience.
In response, the airport approved a hefty budget for more baggage handlers. At first, the cash looked well spent as waiting times dropped to eight minutes, about average for an airport. But complaints remained stubbornly high.
The authorities considered hiring more baggage handlers but that was prohibitively expensive. Instead, the managers took a psychological approach: they focused on improving the subjective experience rather than the objective reality.
One fact they had discovered earlier became key: people spent about a minute walking to the carousel and eight minutes waiting. The authorities re-routed passengers after passport control so they had to walk further. This meant they spent about eight minutes walking to the carousel and just a minute waiting.
Even though the time they picked up their bags was the same, complaints plummeted. In the words of Alex Stone, who reported on the Houston redesign for the New York Times, “the experience of waiting is defined only partly by the objective length of the wait”. What matters more is perception and an unoccupied wait feels far longer than an occupied one.
The academic evidence
This claim about unoccupied time is not just an anecdote. In 2002, three Dutch researchers – Gerrit Antonides, Peter Verhoef and Marcel van Aalst – undertook a study on the perceived length of waiting among 236 telephone callers. They found that when people heard hold music they felt their wait was 7% shorter than when they had nothing to entertain them.
The Houston anecdote and Dutch study have two implications.
Businesses often default to trying to reshape objective reality. This tends to be eye-wateringly expensive and prohibitively time-consuming.
First, for queuing. If brands want to reduce irritation, then length is not the only consideration. Brands should prioritise minimising the tedium of unoccupied waiting. Disney resorts do this brilliantly by filling the dead time of queuing for their rides with entertainment.
There are plenty of other subjective opportunities. For example, uncertain delays are more onerous than fixed ones. Disney again recognises this by clearly labelling the expected waiting time for its queues.
Finally, queues that end on a positive note are rated as less irritating. Disney taps into this by purposefully exaggerating how long they tell people they’ll wait. Then when they arrive at the front of the queue earlier than expected it’s a pleasant surprise.
Second, businesses often default to trying to reshape objective reality. They aim for what could be called ‘engineering solutions’. But these tend to be eye-wateringly expensive and prohibitively time-consuming. In Houston, the management could have sunk vast sums into speeding up the baggage service without seriously improving satisfaction.
Luckily, they showed more imagination. They opted for a psychological solution rather than an engineering one. Before you countenance your next engineering solution it might be worth exploring whether there is a psychological solution you can apply that will be more effective.
Lauren Leak-Smith is a MSc psychology student at the University of St Andrews.