/ Shopping, Travel & Leisure

Fed up waiting? Join the queue!

Cartoon of a queue

Every day I wait in queues. On the way to work, I stand in a bus queue. Shopping for dinner, I end up in a supermarket queue. You can’t even escape queues when you’re on holiday…

Which? Travel’s latest investigation takes a look at airport queues. When online check-in was introduced some years ago, it was supposed to put an end to the days when the first experience of your holiday was a massive queue at the airport. But check-in queues are still with us – and a third of Which? members list them as one of the most frustrating aspects of air travel.

The benefits of bag drop?

Even if you have checked in online and just have a suitcase to drop off, you can’t avoid waiting in line at the airport. Our recent survey found that queues at the bag drop desk can be just as infuriating as the one at check-in, with average waiting times being as long as 21 minutes for an EasyJet flight at Manchester Terminal 1.

Our survey also revealed Stansted airport consistently had the longest waits for check-in and bag drop, with an average wait of 20min and 16min respectively. Have a look at the average slowest and fastest waiting times in our graphic:

Airport queues Which? research

On the way home from a holiday in Greece a couple of months ago, I spent over two hours in queues. The first – to check in for my flight – snaked around the whole check-in area of the airport, as well as outside. After about an hour and 20 minutes I made it to the desk, only to be given a boarding pass and instruction to join yet another queue to drop off my bag.

Fortunately, that one moved a bit quicker, but I still had to wait for around 30 minutes before handing over my luggage. Then it was off to stand in the queue to go through security. Hot, a bit bothered, it wasn’t the best end to what had otherwise been a fantastic week away.

Straight queue or snake queue?

According to the expert we spoke to for our investigation (who advised the government on how to reduce immigration queues prior to the London Olympics), you can reduce wait times by being in the right type of queue.

Picture yourself in a supermarket. If you’re in a straight-line queue, you’ll apparently get through the check-out quicker. That’s because customers don’t waste time like they may do in a ‘snake’ queue, where people follow each other around a line that doubles-back on itself. In the separate straight queues you don’t walk around, or look up and down to see where the next available till is. And the straight system self regulates because customers join the shortest queue.

That may be the theory, but it doesn’t always work for me. More often than not, I find myself in the straight supermarket queue behind the person with hours to spare. They are chatting to friends on the phone, taking their time packing their bags… and all the while I’m noticing other shoppers on their way back home, while I’m going nowhere!

I much prefer being in a ‘snake’ queue. As long as everyone is on the ball, no one at the head of the queue dilly dallies too much. Even better if there’s a supervisor at the front, directing people to appropriate counters. Which type of queue works best for you? Do you find airport queues are just as bad as they’ve always been?


Agree about airport queues, online checkin has not change anything takes just as long to drop luggage off. However I have noticed queues being managed a couple of time to speed things up but have also noticed on a couple of occasions that the airport checkin queue was shorter than the luggage drop off queue.

Also agree that snaking queues, while looking daunting, are fairer.

Of course up here in the North a queue is a chance to have a chat with whoever is nearby.

I cannot think of anything more annoying than queuing. It always seems such an unnecessary waste of time.

Some years ago, Tesco advertised that they would open more tills if two or more people were waiting in front of you. They rarely did this at the local store and if I had been able to reach the signs advertising this service I would have torn them down.

After a flight delay of 5 hours at LGW for BA flight to Amsterdam, I became rather load and accused them of lying to us all: I was told to be quiet, they did not want a riot – so I said I would organise one withing the hour, if we did not departs shortly – within about 20 minutes we were boarding!

Albe back says:
17 August 2013

Clicked on the link about Greek holidays. Which is well respected – even by me a born skeptic – but that article was a load of tosh.

It highlights a very low risk of abnormal disruption, based upon a few demonstrations in Athens and some short term banking issues in Cyprus? Sure the countries have problems, which one doesn’t? Strikes there are at times just like there have been virtually every year by French Air Traffic Controllers, farmers etc.

Although the words tend to play it down, the headline sets the image. I guess “Which for international visitors to the UK” (if there was one) would not recommend a visit to the UK given all the riots and demonstrations over the years in specific locations, floods, droughts, high winds,Lions Mane jelly fish of the west coast, racial hatred and europhobic nature of a few, risk of catching mad cow disease, failing NHS……………however not been near or seen one of those with any abnormal adverse effect for years and that will apply to the vast majority. Some still however will suffer and undoubtedly there are problems and that must make a visitor to the UK wary, like some Americans were a few years ago. It’s just the same in Greece where news gets coloured by a few incidents and scaremongering headlines. Nearly all the demos and rioting are around Syntagma square in Athens, and there are problems elsewhere but generally only those in tourist areas of made by the tourists !!

Different standards abound and culture is different, heat waves do occur etc.; but that part of life.

Even the financial advice in the article was wrong, IMHO, a small amount of cash is the wrong method. Whilst ATMs are widespread they are not as reliable as in the UK and IF there is a serious banking crisis (never in the UK eh? we don’t ever see queues at banks – sorry short memory) then they would no doubt close for time as happened in Cyprus. Cash then would be king for a time so at least a reserve of cash would be very useful, just as it would if you lost your cards!!

When standing in a queue, it is always worth an “Excuse me, could you ask for another checkout to be opened please?”
It usually works in supermarkets.

I have not had much luck with this in Tesco, but there is a very helpful lady who will often open up a checkout when we are expected to use the self-service machines late in the evening. She gets effusive thanks from me and others who look dismayed at the confounded machines. 🙂

But I agree that polite requests are often very effective.

easyJet No1 fan says:
17 August 2013

We are long-term customers of easyJet, so, having embraced online check-in long ago, as recommended by the airline, we were keen for the latest easyJet Luton airport Bag Drop system to work as promised. However, on two flights this year, we have found ourselves in the longest queues we have ever experienced! Are we the stupid ones for tolerating this, especially as there were openable desks not in use at the time? We already arrive at the airport earlier than the recommended time, so this is simply an abuse of customer relations.
If easyJet cannot resolve this major issue, we, and probably many others, will surely have to look at alternative operators when making our holiday and family visiting plans.

Is your nearest Town or City Post-office Understaffed?. I think Adam Crozier is sabotaging our Post-office service by Under-staffing levels.One goes in at lunch time during lunch break hardly any staff they on their lunch-break too Ridiculous while Friday afternoon only 2 persons serving when a lot of people have finished work for the day.My worst experience was a Friday Afternoon at Stretford Mall; Stretford post-office in W.H.SMITH Manchester just before Christmas just 1 person serving.The
post-office union has to realize the 9 til 5 days have gone its a public service and should be staffed at times when a lot in manufacturing&office staff are free.Adam Crozier is so obsessed with Profit he is driving customers away so he can Privatize then small Towns and Villages will have no Post-office
at all.We have millions of Unemployed overpaid bosses like Adam Crozier should be sacked.

Howard Fisher says:
25 August 2013

To be fair to the Post Office, the last few times I’ve been to a main post office, they’ve had a numbered ticket system and I’ve been served with a minimal wait – with one exception, where at least the ticket number gave me an indication of the delay so I could pop out to another shop and get back in time to be served.

Hellikopta says:
17 August 2013

I booked a flight from Liverpool recently with Easy Jet and I checked in on line in the belief that this would speed things up on the day. Oh no, despite arriving 2½ hours early, we spent nearly an hour in the queue as only 2 check in desks were open. As I am diabetic I also needed to grab something to eat before the flight so I had no choice but to pay for express check in as we wouldn’t have made it in time. We spent 10 minutes grabbing a quick sandwich then queued up for security. We ended up having to run for the plan along with about 20 others as they were making the last passenger calls. Not what you want on the first day of your holiday and I won’t be flying from there again in a hurry.

Albe back says:
17 August 2013

Thanks for that heads up with Easyjet at Liverpool. I am due to fly out of there soon so will be looking forward to an improved service :-((

Had a similar experience at Edinburgh and as I am also traveling with a diabetic from Jo0hn Lennon will make sure we have sandwiches to eat.

Wonder if EJ have a bagdrop that can be used in advance?

Must admit it has always defeated me what online check in achieves….other than another excuse to make an extra charge. It always used to be that check in was the confirmation that you had arrived but now it just seems to be a 30 day advanced prediction that you will- for a cost.

Howard Fisher says:
25 August 2013

I recently had a very poor experience with Easyjet at their dedicated terminal at the aptly named Malpensa airport near Milan. The queue for the bag drop was getting on for an hour and seemingly getting longer. Because of this, as each flight got close to its cutoff time, they opened up a dedicated desk for just that flight. So the best strategy appeared to be to turn up just before the cutoff time and get ushered through a dedicated desk with almost no waiting. This of course diverted staff from serving the mail queue, so increasing the time and making the extra desk necessary. Repeat as necessary!

I like waiting in line. I was brought up on it. Nothing compares to waiting in the airport terminal building for various stages of the embarkation process. In my mind, the queueing all merges into one long waiting game and the line-up for check-in/bag drop is no worse than the bit where you take your shoes off or sit around waiting for the boarding gate to be announced or to open. There is always something interesting to look at or to occupy your mind. We always arrive in good time to make sure we miss none of the excitement.

On queueing preferences, the snaking queues are best for all-round interest and exercise as you manhandle your luggage round the left- and right-hand turns with different views at each turning point. With the straight queues, we always pick the slow channel so that we end up behind people with all sorts of ticket/passport/excess baggage issues, with added language difficulties as a bonus usually.

The best lesson in patience, tolerance and self-control is the satisfyingly long queue on the return journey to go through UK Border Control. I always enjoy the friendly “Welcome to the UK” from the turbanned gentleman with the big smile – gives you that warm, glad-to-be-home feeling.

I don’t understand why we have to pay a fee for online check in when we the customers are doing all the work. Before this started the airlines had to supply sufficient staff at the airport to get us all checked in thirty or so minutes before the flight. We are saving the airlines a fortune and are paying for the privilege. Bonkers.

At John Lewis, for example, you join one queue (at any of a number of pay points throughout the store) each feeding several tills and quickly get to the front of the queue for your turn. Much better than gambling on which queue to commit yourself to in the supermarket. I don’t like queuing, particularly when I make the wrong decision – same as on the motorway, when the other lane always moves quicker than yours.
Supermarkets could adopt this system, larger ones by having queues for several groups of tills. For smaller baskets I’ve conquered the self-pay tills – Tescos and B&Q have helpful assistants for when things go amiss.

BarryF says:
19 August 2013

Carrefour in Mallorca has an enormous store near the airport. There they use a common queue with electronic directions to an appropriate till. The system works extremely well and efficiently.

Nick says:
19 August 2013

I recently flew out of Dublin(Aer Lingus) where there was a huge snake queue that ended close to one end of about a dozen check-ins. Meaning that there was a 10 second walk to the furthest check-in and the supervisor was always behind the curve in only bringing forward passengers when the check-in was free. Thus, anywhere between 5-15 seconds was wasted for each check-in. Multiply that by 1000 and its huge.

We’ve all spent hours at airports being delayed unnecessarily. It’s not rocket science. I suggest the best solution is a snake queue initially which ends up maintaining a POOL OF 2 LOTS of passengers at each and every check-in.


Albe back says:
19 August 2013

Good to see a discussion on queue theory!

It is well known, unlike your article example that when the queue wait is significantly longer than the action time (such as we experience at airports rather than at supermarket tills where they can be similar) then first in first served gives the overall shortest waits.

Anyone who jumps the queue or is given priority makes other just wait longer. Some passengers really do deserve priority such as the sick etc. s some small extra wait is inevitable. So the trend of having paid for priority desks have a significant affect, not only for that reason, but also when that priority desk is not fully employed. So those desks really do not help, unless you count moneymaking exercises worthwhile!

The point on small queue delays mentioned previously is also significant as they are cumulative (provided the desk is not actually doing something useful for those few seconds) but I suspect it is a security measure.

The biggest things that would make a difference is to smooth out the demand ( where there are lots of peaks in the hour or two before a flight) and just having more desks open!

Arnold Jenkins says:
24 August 2013

Re ‘The formula for queue busting’ Surely you would get the best of both systems by having in front of each desk, behind the traveller checking-in, a single waiting position fed by a ‘snake’ queue.

Howard Fisher says:
25 August 2013

I’ll give full marks to Waitrose for their Quick Scan. You register your debit or credit card (doesn’t even have to be their own) and at any branch you can swipe it to get a hand scanner that you simply scan your shopping as it goes into the trolley. At the checkout, there’s a dedicated lane of (at Godalming) 3 self service tills that mostly just act as a payment terminal, rarely with one not being instantly available, but that can help with things that didn’t scan etc etc and a staff member hovering in case of problems. Makes their definitely higher than average prices worth it.

And yes, some rare branches of Sainsburys have done the same, but none that I’ve seen are as consistently rolled out as the Waitrose system, that I’ve used now for what seems well over 10 years.

Howard Fisher says:
25 August 2013

I should have added that they do have a system to randomly select customers using quick scan for a full trolley check – but that’s probably happened to me less than once every 3 years. If that does happen, they always open a new checkout so there’s no waiting apart from the scan time.

All bag drop is is a means for the airline to employ fewer staff at check in. Everyone boarding the plane with luggage has to been seen, those who don’t need seats allocated and so one are processed faster so fewer staff are needed to get through the same number of people in the same time. It is naive to think that it exists to benefit the traveller, however much they try to sell it as such.

The point about snake queues rather than queue per desk? Get behind a party of six with dozens of huge cases who then insist on a long debate with the check-in person because they want to sit together and go on to make a fuss about having to pay excess baggage charges and you’ll know why snake queues are better.

Paul Benscher says:
3 September 2013

Hi Try and beat this one . My wife and I flew on Aug 16th to Istanbul via the early B A Flight. Arrived at the visa Counter in Istanbul to find very long queue. After nearly 1 hour we could now see there there where only 2 Visa staff on duty with half the world waiting for visas. All of sudden 1 of the staff got up from there desk got food and water out and sat in another chair to watch the T V in their office area. In the mean time those in the know where getting certain airport staff to jump the queue for them to get their visas from the only person left on duty and this must happend at least 25 to 30 times. With visas now obtained we then joined the passport checking queue for another 30+ minutes. (not yet finished). !5 minutes to find luggage which had been put in pile so they could use the belt for another flight arrival. Thats what I queueing

Darryl Charman says:
4 August 2016

One frustration I have with snaking queues is when retailers etc only open up the tills/counters etc furthest away from the front of the queue – so between customers there’s an unnecessary delay as people have to walk past empty counters just to be served. Businesses should also be aware that it makes more sense to have the end of the snaking queue in the middle of the row of tills/counters, not at one end!