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End of the line: it’s time to rethink the queue

It’s time to rethink the queue

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

Flying to Kalamata this week, I did my own little bit to reduce the terrible queues at Heathrow Terminal 5. Heroically, I stacked up the grey luggage trays once they’d been emptied by passengers coming through security.

As a result, there were more loaded trays for people to pick up, and a smaller tailback of passengers — including me — waiting to pick up their unloaded trays. It was just a tiny example of the hundreds of things that could be done to reduce queues in airports, hospitals, train stations, supermarkets…

The British may be famous for their patient queueing but it doesn’t mean we actually like doing it. So why hasn’t more been done to eradicate queues?

We can travel around the world faster than ever. Medicine makes even more miraculous advances. One of the joyful aspects of Amazon is that it removes the need to queue in shops. This week, Aldi announced new, checkout-free, queue-free supermarkets. Hooray! And yet the eternal queue remains unreformed and undisrupted elsewhere.

Take my trip to Kalamata. My plane to Greece was on time — it took only three hours and 50 minutes to travel 1,500 miles from Heathrow to Kalamata Airport. But because of all that queueing at Heathrow, it also happened to take me exactly the same amount of time — three hours and 50 minutes — to get the 17 miles from my north London flat to my seat in the plane. Thanks to queues, I was moving nearly 100 times more slowly on the ground than in the air.


Once Heathrow has sorted out someone to pile up the grey trays at security, it’s time to set up a single queue to do everything at the airport. Instead of queueing four separate times — to go through baggage check-in, security, passport checks and boarding — let’s queue once for all four rituals, all squeezed together after one relatively pain-free line. The airline employee who checks your hold luggage could also put your hand luggage through the security X-ray machine. The stewardess who greets you on the plane as you line up to find a seat could also become authorised to check your passport.

There were another two queues at Kalamata Airport as our passports, Covid certificates and passenger locator forms were checked. Why can’t airline stewardesses check those forms while we’re in the air as well as giving us a pack of salt and vinegar crisps and a miniature can of Coke?

Three days before I was due to fly, I had a terrible pain in my foot after running a triathlon. At the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, my experience of the doctor, nurse, blood test and X-ray were all brilliant — but between each procedure there was an hour’s wait. I spent five hours waiting for procedures that, taken together, lasted only 20 minutes. There was another half-hour wait in the hospital pharmacy for painkillers.

After triage and the initial decision that my injury wasn’t serious, I could have had my blood test and X-ray in the same room, done by a single nurse. Then I could have been given an appointment with the doctor to see the results at a specific time. Even if that time had been five hours later, I could have sat outside on a lovely late-summer day in Hampstead, or even have taken a cab to work or back home. Instead, like the other poor souls at the Royal Free, I was condemned to shuttle back and forth to the limbo world of the windowless waiting room.

Rather than being consigned to the hellish queue in the hospital pharmacy (‘Average wait — 27 minutes,’ a sign said), let patients go to the nearest chemist in Hampstead where the wait was zero minutes. The waiting was the real agony — much greater than the tiny pain of the blood test or the non-existent pain of the X-ray. Shovelling more billions into the NHS, as the government has just done with the National Insurance rise, won’t make any difference if you don’t deal with queues.

Why have time and motion studies gone out of fashion? They were pioneered over a century ago by the Americans Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. Over the course of the 20th century, the studies became increasingly mocked — notably in I’m All Right Jack (1959), where union official Fred Kite (Peter Sellers) is horrified at Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) impressing a time and motion official with his lightning-quick forklift-
truck driving.

Revolutionising queues needn’t cost a penny. All we need is for a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk of time and motion studies to turn their attention to queues and take them out of the Stone Age.

It’s time to get tough on queues and tough on the causes of queues.

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