Idleness, Luggage Carousels, and The Inefficiency of Airports

…There once was a clever engineer who noticed that the carousels for luggage are spaced at different distances from different gates – some farther and some closer to where the passengers were deplaning. And this engineer redesigned the allocation of carousels such that they minimized the distance to their gate, and therefore minimized the amount of walking that passengers would have to do to pick up their luggage. A few airports implemented this highly efficient system and patted themselves on the back. They were very pleased with their improvement – that is, until people started complaining.

Of course, everything that the engineer predicted was true. By refining the assignment of carousels to match up with their corresponding gates, people had to walk less and could get to their luggage faster. The problem was that this system worked too well, and passengers were beating their luggage to the carousels. When they arrived, they had to twiddle their thumbs while they waited for their luggage to catch up with them.

Think about these two ways to get your luggage: With the original airport design, you walk ten minutes, but when you finally get to the carousel, your baggage gets there a minute after you (taking 11 minutes). In the other, you walk three minutes, but when you arrive you have to wait five minutes for your luggage (taking 8 minutes). The second scenario is faster, but people become more annoyed with the process because they have more idle time. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr. noted, “I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely.”

The “good news” is that airports quickly reverted to their former (inefficient) system, and we now walk farther to our suitcases just to avoid the frustrations of idleness.

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Dan Ariely is the best-selling author of The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home and Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.