Queueing Theory

“As an important person, I am entitled to be ahead of the hoi polloi and cannot be bothered about niceties like queues and waiting-for-your-turn. Hence, I did not bother to reach here in time, knowing I could take advantage of the apathy of the common people and their diffidence in taking a principled stand, even for their own benefit. I can play the ‘victim’ card, or bulldoze the off person who dares to object, to get ahead.”

He had actually said, “My flight is about to take off. May I please go ahead of you?”

I had cleared the queue to enter the terminal building, and the queue to drop my checked in bag, for my flight to Bangalore in the morning, the previous Sunday, and had entered the third and last queue, for the Security Check, before I got in to the queue to show my boarding card to the airline staff at the gate, followed by the queue to enter the bus that took us to the aircraft, followed by the queue to enter the aircraft, when he had uttered these words.

And he had almost edged past me completely, assuming, I assume, that all was good, and that I should be grateful for the privilege he was according me, of letting him pass, when I had made my move and blocked his path. “Please come in queue. My flight is also about to take off,” I had said firmly.

Clearly not used to such a response, the gentleman appeared lost at first, but quickly composed himself and said, matter-of-factly, “But I will miss my flight.” Apparently, it was my problem that he was going to miss his flight.

“If you are in a hurry, please ask the airline staff to help you speed up the process.” I was in the mood to be logical and reasonable. I also looked around to others in the queue, hoping they would support my logical stance. But they were engaged in other important tasks to save the world, peering into their mobile phones.

“But the airline staff said they cannot help me with the security process,” he said, agony of that slight writ large on his face.

“So it becomes my responsibility to flirt with the possibility of getting delayed myself and letting you go through?” I responded, bringing all my years of experience writing satire to bear upon that single statement, hoping to shame him to the point of withering away, while appealing to the baser instincts of others, as, by this time, the sight of two adults engaged in a quarrel of sorts had ensured that a small crowd had gathered around us, leaving their places in the queue. It was a relief to know that watching a spectacle live is still more important than saving the world on a mobile screen.

“What time is your flight?” someone asked the other gentleman.

“7.45,” he responded.

“What time is your flight?” the same person asked me.

“7.50,” I responded, holding up my boarding card.

“So let him go through then. His flight is before yours, is it not?”

The others joined in the chorus. I wilted under this onslaught. He quickly stepped past me flashing a smile of victory that said, “Take that you idiot.” As many others had left their positions in the queue, he was able to quickly get through to the Security Check station.

Failure to learn fast has never been one of my weaknesses. Though chastened, almost three seconds later, when the next person came up who was late for the flight he had to catch that was almost at the same time as mine, and made his move with, “My flight is about to take off. May I please go ahead of you?” I was ready. I shook his hand, wished him a pleasant flight, and requested the person ahead of me in the queue, to let him pass.

As I kept flagging people past me in the queue, and as people who were late for the flight they had to catch that was almost at the same time as mine, kept making their move with, “My flight is about to take off. May I please go ahead of you?” my mind wandered off to those happy days at the Well Known Institute of Management in Western India (WIMWI), and to Professor Tripathi’s class on Production and Operations Management, over thirty years back. “Single queue multiple server,” I was hearing him say, “is the most efficient form of queueing, that optimises wait time for the customer and idle time for the server.”

But man keeps pushing the envelope. New discoveries are being made every day. Little would Professor Tripathi have known, that even before he retired from WIMWI, there would be an even more efficient way of queueing; of people showing up late and cutting the queue.

Soon, the only two people standing behind me were two greying ladies, who looked like they were foreigners. I looked at them pityingly. It was clear they did not have the benefit of good education. Of modern theories of queueing. They may have good communication skills, good interpersonal skills, respect for people, but theories of queueing? With such a gap in their knowledge, how could they hope to get ahead? At least in queues in India.

As I continued to be the last but two in the queue, having moved barely a few inches from the time I had entered, I realised that I will miss my flight if I did not clear security in the next five minutes. Being a quick learner, as I have perhaps mentioned earlier, I stepped on the accelerator, alternating between playing the ‘victim’ card and bulldozing my way through the few uneducated souls who dared to object, scythed through the queue, and reached the Security Check point. I had a flight to catch, after all.

Not to be left behind in demonstrating their speed of learning, the Delhi airport authorities decided to resolve the issue of delays in the Security Check queue by creating a separate fast track queue for important persons, entitled to be ahead of the hoi polloi, who cannot be bothered about niceties like queues and waiting-for-your-turn, who do not bother to reach in time, knowing they can take advantage of the apathy of the common people and their diffidence in taking a principled stand, even for their own benefit, by playing the ‘victim’ card, or bulldozing the off person who dares to object.

It is remarkable what can be achieved with a little effort, some imagination and a lot of resolve. In as short a period of time as a week. The Security Check queue presented a transformed look yesterday, which, again, was a Sunday. The regular queue was clear as a crisp February day in Gurgaon. One could see miles out to the security personnel swatting flies as they waited for the next passenger to show up.

Meanwhile, all passengers stood in the fast track queue, along with everyone else who was flying out from Delhi at that time, beneficiaries of Delhi airport authorities alacrity in implementing a solution, continuously moving ahead of others in the queue, even as the others kept moving ahead of them.

 

Home sweet home

“But why can our airports not be as good?”

The booming voice that emanated from the vicinity, starting this polite conversation, even before I had settled down in my seat, suddenly had a calming effect on me.

I had been overseas for almost two weeks and home-sickness had set in. I was looking forward to getting back. Though I had finally set-off for home, the changing of flights at a foreign airport, hopping onto an intra-airport train to switch terminals, with language-induced confusion over gates thrown in, had left my nerves jangled. I was so out of sorts that I wasn’t even sure if I had taken the right flight.

But as soon as I heard those calming words, I knew that I was on the right flight.

For the first time I looked at the burly person spilling out of the economy seat next to me. We were on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi. I wondered if it was safe to argue, considering I was going to be sitting right next to him for the next five hours.

Throwing caution to the winds I defended. A few days outside the country will do that to you. You lose reason and become inclined to take risks disproportionate to return. Like defending your country in the face of huge odds like a muscular gentleman sitting in the economy seat right next to you. No reasonable person would dream of doing such a thing inside the country. “Have you travelled through the spanking new Terminal 3? It is as good as any in the world”, I offered.

He glared at me, sensing that the conversation was not going in the direction of a normal country-bashing duel whenever two faithfuls meet.

He raised his arm. It must have weighed as much as all of me. I braced for the blow.

But the blow did not come.

Like a nimble boxer, he had quickly changed tactics.

“I am coming from Manila”, he said waving his raised arm to the right and a bit to the back, as if asking me to look in the direction of the arm’s movement to catch a glimpse of the receding Manila skyline. From Kuala Lumpur.

“I see”, I said, and for good measure added “That’s great”, looking into the screen in front of me.

Silence.

More silence.

Even more silence.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked, unable to contain himself any longer.

“Singapore”, I said, still looking into the screen.

Before I knew it, he had worked his way through my family history, how I had found the hotel I stayed in while in Singapore and how much I had paid for it, did I pay for it or was it paid for by someone else, was it a personal trip or charged to a company account, was it money accounted for or “black”, quickly and efficiently moving on to my monthly income, how much did my house cost me and whether I paid taxes on time.

With each invasive query, I was getting more and more relaxed. After two weeks in unfamiliar surroundings, I could almost smell the smells of home. It was just like talking to a stranger on the street or an unsolicited sales caller on the phone. The many pleasant conversations I have had were ringing in my ears even as I was talking to the person seated next to me. How much did the car cost you? What is the mileage you get? Did you take a loan to buy it? Which Credit Card do you have? What is the Credit Limit on the Card?

I must have dozed off because I do not remember any conversation about my criminal record and sexual orientation and stayed dozed till the plane was about to land.

As soon as passengers knew it was not a crash landing, which was almost 3 milliseconds after the rear wheels touched down, there was a rush to retrieve hand-carried bags from the overhead compartments. It was a sad sight. It seemed that a few days spent overseas in orderly surroundings, even standing in queues at times, had dulled their reflexes. I cannot recollect a single domestic flight I have ever travelled on where it has taken more than 2 milliseconds for passengers to retrieve handbags from the time the rear wheels touch down on the tarmac.

As we reached the arrival hall, we found that there were no “arrival cards” that are mandatory to fill before approaching an immigration officer for immigration clearance. Yep, this was the place I had to reach.

After some time an officious looking person could be seen sauntering towards the place where people were waiting, with a gleeful look, waving a sheaf of papers. Someone in the crowd noticed him and shouted. Fearing a lifetime spent in the arrival hall of Delhi airport, the crowd surged towards him to catch one of the elusive pieces of paper and clear immigration.

Perhaps because I was not showing any anxiety for the paper, he thought that I did not need it and hence sought me out and handed them to me and, in a noble discharge of his duties, asked me to distribute them around to others. Not one to shirk responsibility in times of need, I quickly took the three copies I needed, and, drawing from my years of experience working in corporates, found another capable-looking person and asked him to distribute them around to others.

After clearing immigration, I walked over to one of the stores selling duty-free stuff, before collecting my checked-in bags. Here, the last strand of doubt was removed. I was well and truly home.

I could see at least 15 attendants in a shop barely a hundred square metres in size. As usual, standing around, chatting with each other, telling customers what they could read themselves. I was in my element here. I asked one of them to bring me a basket. Then I kept pointing at stuff I wanted and the person kept putting it in the basket and carrying it around for me. Just six hours back I had not thought twice before carrying a basket of chocolates weighing almost three kilos around myself. I was ashamed to even think about it. I hoped nobody I knew had seen my behaviour. What depths had I sunk to when I was overseas?

As I sat in the cab I breathed a sigh of relief. I had reached home. In fact, in some ways, I had touched down before the flight had even taken off, when I had heard the words “But why can our airports not be as good?”