Checkpoint Queuing: learning lessons from Walt Disney

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The air transportation business is changing and adapting rapidly to passengers’ expectations, using data and innovative technologies, in an effort to meet its clients’ needs. We have learned, through studies conducted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), that passengers want to exercise more control over their journey and that a large proportion of them prefer self-service and mobile applications. Consequently, the very important first point of contact for passengers will occur more often than not at the security checkpoint. The question that airport designers and operators should ask themselves, is whether or not the security checkpoint reflects the corporate image and the level of service that the airport wants to project and deliver to its passengers.

Queueing theories and the management of wait time in the retail and service industries have been well researched and documented in the past thirty years. Restaurants, banks, hotels and theme parks have developed and applied queuing concepts and innovative wait time management practices to create additional value for their industry. It has also enabled these leaders to grow their revenues and to gain a competitive advantage in their industry.

Could similar approaches be adapted to airports’ security checkpoints to manage wait time more effectively and to explore venues to deliver a better passenger experience? In this paper, we will review some of the ideas that have been developed in past years and compare them to current practices found in some international airports. We will propose that an effective and efficient management of queues and wait time, when supported by security personnel possessing the right competencies, can generate more security and commercial value at those checkpoints.


If security in general is about trade-off, then security screening is about complying with security imperatives while attempting to deliver a great experience at the best possible cost.

Until recently, there has been much talk and little else, concerning the passenger experience at the checkpoint. Thankfully this is changing as many airports and screening authorities are now realizing the importance and the benefits of investing in security checkpoints. In fact, a number of studies have clearly demonstrated the importance of managing the first point of contact with the client, how this emotional event or service encounter can shape the overall level of satisfaction as perceived by the customer.

Queuing and wait time management are about finding a balance, «a waiting time that customers find acceptable while keeping utilization reasonably high»[1]. Why is this important for an airport authority? Well, this is due to the importance of wait time as a key predictor of customer satisfaction.

Organizations that are seeking to develop a competitive advantage based on service, must demonstrate how they value the time their customers spend waiting in line as «queues represent a moment of truth; if managed well, they demonstrate a tangible commitment to customer service; if unplanned or unmanaged, they show contempt for the customers time»[2].


In the Psychology of Waiting Lines, David Maister suggested that wait time affects our overall perception of the quality of the service: «Once we are being served, our transaction with the service organization may be efficient, courteous and complete: but the bitter taste of how long it took to get attention pollutes the overall judgment that we can make about the quality of service»[3].

Maister defined the first law of service as S = P – E, where Satisfaction is a measure of how we Perceive wait time, minus our Expectation of the wait. «The corollary to this law is the proposition that there is a halo-effect created by the early stages of any service encounter and that if money, time and attention is to be spent in improving the perceived quality of service, then the largest payback as well occur in these early stages[4].

Don Norman pursued Maister’s reflection, positioning the importance of emotions during service transactions: «Emotions colour the experience and, more importantly, how the experience will be remembered. The memory of an event is more important than the experience itself[5] He proposed, as Maister did, eight fundamental principles that can be applied to services and waiting lines:

  1. Emotions dominate;
  2. Eliminate confusion: provide a conceptual mode, feedback and explanation;
  3. The wait must be appropriate;
  4. Set expectations, then meet or exceed them;
  5. Keep people occupied: filled time passes more quickly than unfilled time;
  6. Be fair;
  7. End strong, start strong;
  8. Memory of an event is more important than the experience.»

A number of psychologists, including Daniel Kahneman, have written extensively about the importance of the first and last impression in the context of a service encounter and how our judgment is affected by cognitive biases and heuristics, whereas we experience and recall events quite differently[6]. So why is this research so important for airport planners, operators and for their airlines partners and why should they invest in security screening checkpoints?


Recent surveys conducted by IATA show that passengers expect more control over their journey and they see added value from self-service options. Considering this trend, it is more likely that the all important first contact with the passenger will occur more often than not at the security screening checkpoint.

Furthermore, 20% or more of the passenger dwell time actually takes place at the security checkpoint, where happiness, relaxation and service standards have not always been top of mind! So wouldn’t it make sense for an airport authority to take advantage of this significant amount of time with a captive and valuable audience, to invest in the checkpoint as part of a strategy to provide a pleasant and faster experience.

Recent marketing research and studies in Europe have shown that over 50% of purchases in airports are made on impulse. The well designed retail areas certainly contribute to the «emotional impulse».So why not design checkpoints that would mirror the sophisticated environment that is found elsewhere in the airport?

Could we not supply passengers with information essential for their journey, light entertainment to make the wait feel shorter? Why not use the space and time at the checkpoint for branding and merchandising opportunities, which could translate into higher non aviation revenues that could offset the investments at the checkpoint. Could we not hire screeners possessing the emotional intelligence competencies to function effectively in a customer service environment and train them in alignment with this strategy? By providing a more relaxing and pleasant experience, we can significantly contribute to reducing the level of anxiety at the checkpoint; this is not only good business, it makes a lot of security sense as well, as suspicious behaviours are more easily detectable when the overall emotional baseline is lowered at the checkpoint.


«To minimize the negative aspects of waiting, managers have available the following three strategies. The first is to manage the reality of the actual wait through the use of techniques that can help better match capacity with customer demand. The second is to manage the perception of the wait by responding to how customers perceive the wait. The third, and most innovative, is to make the wait invisible through developing virtual queues, which allow customers to participate in other activities while they wait for an appointed time at their desired activity[7]


Resource allocation is critical for all service industries, including security screening at airports. Queuing is about numbers. To manage queuing properly, one must rely on data acquisition and analysis. Some of the best practices in the industry include the BPSS system used by CATSA in Canada[8] and SmartQ[9] currently used by Bristol Airport (BRS).

In both cases, the barcode of passengers’ boarding passes is scanned upon entering the queue and then again at the start of the screening process; this can be performed with a hand held scanner or through an automated e-gate. This allows the authority to validate the boarding pass, measure wait time and calculate the throughput for each screening line.

Real time reports and alerts are available with both systems. Furthermore, the BPSS data can be matched quickly with CCTV feeds to resolve security incidents and to prevent costly evacuations. Once sufficient historical data is captured by these systems, it can be used in a predictive fashion, to better estimate the arrival patterns and the number of passengers expected at different times of the day, allowing for a more efficient allocation of screening resources in relation to ;service standards. This trend for data acquisition and analytics is definitely picking up steam as exemplified by a number of similar programs recently announced, including Positive Boarding at Heathrow (LHR); after all as Peter Drucker taught us, what gets measured gets managed!


Disney is a leader in the entertainment business. To maintain its competitive advantage, Disney became an expert in queueing and wait time management. In the face of the growing popularity of its attraction parks, Disney innovated by developing its FASTPASS product. When customers arrive at a given attraction, they are given the choice to wait, based on the posted wait time, or they can elect to take a FASTPASS ticket (paper or electronic) from a nearby kiosk, inviting them to return to the attraction at a specified time, later on.

When they present themselves at the said time, they are given a priority access to the attraction. This allows the customer, in the meantime, to attend to other activities and it gives Disney the ability to bundle more products and services in their offering. Fastpass has allowed Disney to increase significantly the level of satisfaction of its customers, while maximizing the utilization of its attractions.

Virtual queuing was tested at three airports in the United States: Orlando, Oakland and Indianapolis (MCO, OAK, IND). The analysis of the data suggested that based on the nature of the airport traffic «the introduction of virtual queuing shifts the passenger arrival distribution; because a portion of passengers arrives at the checkpoint closer to their flight departure time, with a virtual queue, both the mean and standard deviation of the arrival distribution experience a shift[10]

Virtual queuing could benefit airports where the traffic pattern is governed by peaks and valleys, however that benefit is not as evident for those airports with a constant demand throughout the day. It would appear that airports with a combination of heavy charter and scheduled traffic would be able to redistribute peak demands by using virtual queuing. Of course it requires airports to rethink their commercial strategy concerning the bundling of their services before and after the checkpoint.

With big data and the integration of airports’ information systems, virtual queuing could yield even more benefits in the future: «If a virtual queue system were integrated with ticketing and check-in databases, critical time windows could be continually calculated and updated based on real-time-information.»[11]


We’re all familiar with the express lanes at our supermarkets, where clients with a limited number of items are directed to designated lanes. Research conducted on behalf of the supermarket industry has clearly demonstrated the benefit of the express lanes and how it reduces the average wait time for all customers. Processing time is a major operational challenge for all screening authorities. Not only is it difficult to analyze complex images of densely packed carry-on items, but it is further compounded by the number of items in possession of passengers.

Airports have tested alternatives such as a dedicated lane for passengers travelling with just one item, as implemented at Pittsburgh airport (PIT). However with the efficiency gained through the TSA’s Pre-Check program in the United States, many airports such as PIT, have decided to remove such dedicated lanes.

Other airports, such as YUL in Montreal, are testing a reservation system, SecurXpress, where passengers checking in online can ask the airport authority for a dedicated screening time. As with virtual queuing, passengers presenting themselves at the specified time, will be given a priority access. [12]

More trials and data analysis will be required to test the efficiency of those products but we can already see how virtual queueing and reservation systems could normalize arrival pattern of passengers and smooth out some of the high traffic peaks. In the long run however, there is no doubt that a risk based approach based on passenger differentiation (Nexus, Global Entry and Pre-Check) is the best sustainable solution for the industry, but that’s another topic all together!


If queuing is about the actual physical time, then wait time management is about how that wait feels. We know that emotions dominate at the checkpoint, anxiety certainly being the most evident of them all. Why are passengers anxious? To find out, we only have to listen to what they say in the queue: they want to know how long they will wait; they’re afraid to miss their flight; they don’t think they will have time for a coffee or time to stop at the duty free store. There’s a gap in information that is generating a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

Even though we live in a society of instant gratification, instant service is not always possible, so we have to wait. So why not let passengers know how long they are expected to wait, by posting wait time and by communicating service standards? Why not use our personnel and social media to inform, engage and reassure them?

One of the best example of valuing passengers’ time is offered by Copenhagen airport (CPH), which has won the world best airport security screening, as awarded by Skytrax[13]. CPH made a conscious and strategic decision to invest in the checkpoint’s service level and functionality, which includes posting wait time at various locations in the terminal and automating certain processes (e-gates) to increase the flow while reducing costs.

The CPH checkpoint is well designed, pleasant and integrated with the overall look and feel of the terminal. It has also instated a service level standard where passengers are not expected to wait more than five minutes. In 2012, they not only met that target but actually exceeded it, as the average wait time was under four minutes, exemplifying another golden principle in managing wait time: «If you believe the waiting time is going to be nine minutes, promise ten, not eight; people are pleasantly surprised when they are serviced a little quicker than they were prepared to wait.» [14]

It’s encouraging to see that measuring and providing wait time information to passengers is becoming more prevalent, as exemplified by numerous announcements made by airport authorities, including just recently Hamburg (HAM) and Dulles (IAD). Wait time information is also available in Canada, through CATSA’s website and participating airports.

Unoccupied time feels a lot longer than occupied time, especially when the environment is not pleasant! In such situations our recollection of the experience is often negative. In fact surveys show that over thirty per-cent of passengers overestimate wait time. Every year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) publishes its passengers’ survey, including passengers’ feedback concerning security screening at airports. The 2012 and 2013 surveys show that passengers in a proportion of 26% expect to wait less than 5 minutes whereas 50% of passengers expect their wait to be anywhere from five to ten minutes. [15]

The study performed by Katz «et al» for the banking industry determined that customers indeed perceive wait time in intervals of five minutes and in the case of banks, the reasonable wait time was identified as five minutes.

Considering the future demographic trends with wealthy and older customers expected to travel increasingly, it would be wise to design a comfortable checkpoint, especially in the queue by providing simple solutions such as anti-fatigue floor covering and flexible seating capacity.   In that regard, the recent redesign of a security checkpoint at Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) is a good example to emulate! The glowing comments captured from passengers using the checkpoint refer to a pleasant experience and a sophisticated environment, something we don’t hear very often[16]. The new design and configuration at DFW resulted in a higher throughput and lower wait time, translating into higher commercial benefits for the airport’s retail area.

There is no doubt that we can reduce anxiety and increase the passenger satisfaction through design and by investing in the look and feel of the checkpoint. Providing a pleasant environment will not only translate into happier customers, but it will also affect screeners positively.


Besides tackling the issues of queuing and wait time management, an airport authority must also address human performance at the checkpoint. We need to find screeners possessing, what I like to refer to as the service DNA, where genes are replaced by Emotional Intelligence Competencies!

Daniel Goleman[17] has researched and written extensively on this subject. There is no longer any doubt that those employees who possess the social and personal competencies linked to EI are our best performers in all categories: effectiveness, efficiency and customer service. They possess the self-awareness required to manage their own feelings and the empathy to recognize our clients’ emotions. They have a capacity to adapt well to changes and to learn on the job. Furthermore, they are self-motivated and possess a capacity to manage their stress well. These employees are also comfortable working within a collaborative environment; they understand what it takes to be part of a team.

It would then make sense for airports authorities, private security companies or screening authorities to recruit and train their personnel accordingly. Furthermore the good news is that EI can be improved upon through training and coaching.

We often hear about the « tone at the top », but I also like to refer to the « tone in the middle », to stress the importance of the first level of supervision as a key source of motivation, engagement and job satisfaction for the screening employees. Selecting supervisors based on their ethical values, EI competencies and leadership skills will yield great dividends not only for the screening authority but for the passengers as well.

Organizations should ensure, through audits, that the outcomes they are seeking are well aligned from recruiting, to training, supervision, quality controls, KPIs and performance management. The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) in the United Kingdom, has developed an assessment and training program to motivate a security workforce[18]. This is a best practice that can be applied to align the performance of the workforce with a strategy focused on customer service and security.


«The psychological impact of waits can be managed and studies in design show us how to do it»[19]and there’s no better example than Disney. «Disney has provided an interesting study that combines the techniques of queuing and human capital to strategically leverage knowledge management in their organization. Emotions colour the experience and more importantly how the experience will be remembered. With this in mind, Disney uses both cast members and waiting strategies to make magical memories. Next, Disney improves its customers perception by minimizing the perception of waits. The use of the FASTPASS enables Disney not only to enhance the psychological aspect of waiting lines, but also to capitalize at the same time. Through an in-depth analysis of customer preferences, Disney managers have turned a queuing problem into a knowledge management solution[20]


«Waiting is a necessary part of life, often negative and disliked, but occasionally welcomed and enjoyed. Customer expectations, emotions and memories can be managed through the application of the appropriate design principles.»[21] These design principles can be included in the planning process for new terminals or in the retrofitting of existing checkpoints, as in the case of DFW.

The security checkpoint is where commercial and security interests can merge to benefit operators, passengers and screeners. Planning and investing in the design of checkpoints, applying innovative queuing techniques, valuing the time passengers spend waiting and offering security services with aptly recruited and trained personnel, is a source of value creation that has not yet been fully exploited!

For airport authorities, it’s a mean to increase non aviation revenues as happy customers are more likely to buy goods and services on impulse, after leaving the checkpoints. From a strict security perspective, lowering anxiety at the checkpoint, will lower the emotional baseline, which in turn is more conducive to detecting suspicious behaviours.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote a long time ago that “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return. And that’s what we want as well: we want to bring back some of the excitement and fun of flying. The master was again well ahead of his time!

Yves Duguay, EMBA, ICD.D     President of HCiWorld

[1] Anderson, Edward, (September 2007) A note on managing waiting times, UT McCombs School of Business

[2] Green, Terry (2011), «Now you’re next! How one company changed the way we shop», Marshall Cavendish, Books 24X7

[3] Maister, David (1985), The Psychology of Waiting Lines,, 2001-2013

[4] Maister, David (1985), The Psychology of Waiting Lines,, 2001-2013

[5] Norman, Don (August 2008), The psychology of waiting lines,

[6] Kahneman, Daniel (2013), «Thinking fast and slow», Anchor Canada edition

[7] Dickson, Duncan; Ford, Robert and Laval, Bruce, Managing real and virtual waits in hospitality and service organizations, Cornell Hotel and Restaurant administration quarterly, Feb. 2005, ABI/INFORM

[8] CATSA’s Website:

[9] Youtube video of the SmartQ product:

[10] Narens, Joseph, Virtual Queuing, could it be a reality for airports? Industrial engineer, nov. 2004; 36, 11; ABI/INFORM

[11] Narens, Joseph, Virtual Queuing, could it be a reality for airports? Industrial engineer, nov. 2004; 36, 11; ABI/INFORM

[12]; april, 2014

[13] CPH website, november 2013,

[14] Green, Terry (2011), «Now you’re next! How one company changed the way we shop», Marshall Cavendish, Books 24X7

[15] 2013 IATA Global Passenger Survey, September 2013


[17] Daniel Goleman (reissued October 2006), Working with Emotional Intelligence, Random House Inc. (e-book edition), NY, NY.

[18] CPNI Website:

[19] Donald NORMAN (2009), Designing waits that work, MIT Sloan Management Review,

[20] Cope, Rachelle; Cope, Robert, Innovative knowledge management at Disney: Human capital and queuing solutions for services, Journal of Service Science (2011); ABI/INFORM

[21] Donald NORMAN (2009), Designing waits that work, MIT Sloan Management Review,