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The Weight of the Wait

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rex Pe

Psychological Impact of Long Lines

According to researchers and customer-loyalty experts like Nick Wreden, the average person will wait in lines between two and five years of their life. Unfortunately for travelers, the present-day airport experience is all about waiting: wait to park, wait to check-in, wait to be screened, wait to board. For frequent flyers this could translate into as much as 10 years stuck in a queue.

While the loss of time is unfortunate, it’s not nearly as distressing as the feelings of boredom and frustration that accompany the wait. To make matters worse, studies show people overestimate the time they’ve waited in line up to 50 percent. That means a 20 minutes wait to interact with an airline agent feels like 30 minutes to most people. The experience of waiting is defined only in part by the objective length of the wait. “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” notes Dr. Richard Larson, a MIT professor who is widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines. Translated into simpler language: if your time spent waiting becomes more occupied and active it feels shorter, if your time is unoccupied and filled with uncertainty the stress of waiting is magnified. I know I’d pick a fast-moving line over a slow-moving line, even if the wait time is identical, every time. Why? Because with each step forward I feel I’m making progress towards my ultimate destination.

From Waiting to Moving

To address this, in concert with delivering a more personalized and enjoyable journey as demanded by today’s travelers, I believe the near-future airport will shift away from waiting and emphasize on more continuous movement. As both an airport designer and frequent traveler, I believe innovations in biometric and self-service technology will drastically change the airport experience as we know it today. Putting some of these innovations into practice, and moving towards a fluid airport experience, Gensler and JetBlue recently collaborated on a renovation of the airline’s check-in lobby at JFK International Airport.

JetBlue Ticketing Hall. Image © JetBlue Airways

As the first major self bag tag and self bag drop project at JFK, Gensler helped transform the existing check-in lobby to support JetBlue as they redefine the check-in experience. To help alleviate the congestion points of a traditional check-in lobby, the long queue that customers typically see first, the existing lobby was expanded by more than 75 percent. Now that customers have more room to move, JetBlue is empowering them to set their own pace through the introduction of more than 75 self-check kiosks that also directly provide users with baggage tags. After adhering their own baggage tags, customers then take their luggage to a newly-designed Bag Drop position. Minimizing the effort required by airline staff and the bottleneck it creates, the check-in process becomes quicker and both more active. A plus for JetBlue and its customers.

Gensler’s work with JetBlue is just one example of the transformation currently taking place across the globe. A recent survey by SITA projects that by 2018, just two years from now, approximately 75% of airlines will offer kiosks that move beyond self check in and boarding passes. This next generation departures experience also allow passengers to also print their own bag tag and directly drop their checked baggage, bypassing the need to queue for a customer service agent. A similar philosophy can be employed in other “hurry up and wait” areas of the airport, such as security screening and customs/border control. Again with JetBlue at JFK, Gensler recently designed a U.S. Customs and Border Control Facility that integrates 40 Automated Passport Control Kiosks and 10 Global Entry Kiosks. These self-service options help to reduce the time it takes an internationally arriving passenger go from airplane door to baggage pickup: 28 minutes versus the current standard of 45 minutes.

The Near Future

The near-future airport is already beginning to emerge via technology-rich, experience-focused terminal designs in new and renovated terminals around the world. Design strategies focused on passenger comfort and well-being have already gained traction and are showing success, as measured by both passenger satisfaction and terminal revenue. As personal and airport technology continue to improve, terminals must continue to employ strategies and solutions that emphasize ease of movement and passenger experience. More hands on than the model of the recent past, the near future terminal’s focus on self-service puts greater control in the hands of the customer. A more tech-enabled, individualized journey through the airport that is more time efficient and less stressful—I’m all for it.

Matt Johnson is unapologetically obsessed with design. From the overall form of a building down to the singular moments that make up a passenger’s journey, no detail is too small to consume his attention. A design director with Gensler’s Aviation and Transportation practice, you can contact Matt at Matt_Johnson@Gensler.com.