Plane Answers: Why can’t airlines wait at the gate vs. in a queue on the taxiway?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Mike asks:

Hello Kent,

There are times when I find myself on a plane that is waiting in the queue to depart and I wonder if this makes sense. After all, having 10 airplanes push from gates only to idle their engines for 20-30 minutes waiting to take off does not seem to be a good idea for an industry where fuel is the largest single cost.

Can you explain who decides when an aircraft pushes back and queues up to take off? Is there a reason that airplanes get in line to depart as opposed to just being assigned a number and waiting at the gate until it’s their turn (other than if the gate is needed for an arriving plane)?

It doesn’t really make sense, Mike. But some airports have adopted a gate hold program that does just what you’re talking about; hold airplanes at the gate until the line begins to clear out. London and Paris both use this technique. However, even after holding at the gate for 15 minutes to an hour, we still often find ourselves waiting in line for departure as we approach the runway. It’s simply a matter of the required spacing for departures combined with the number of flights scheduled to leave at the peak times that causes this.
There is also a concern by ATC that there may be no aircraft ready at the end of the runway for departure if they’re held at the gate at the last minute, which would result in even more inefficiency.

Other airports (especially in the U.S.) will advise flights of a ‘wheels up’ time, allowing the pilots to push back at their discretion as long as they can be ready by the time given by ATC. This works to some extent, but flight crews are paid only after they push back from the gate, so the incentive to begin taxiing early is something that admittedly factors into their decision.

To prevent this, our company has a system in place to start the pay clock for pilots and flight attendants once an ATC delay is given which, in theory, would eliminate this incentive. In practice, many pilots don’t trust the system to log the time or have been denied the extra pay in the past and would rather take the delay off the gate – possibly to an area where ATC will allow them to shut down the engines.

Richard Branson at Virgin made an attempt to think outside the box and looked into a tug system that could tow the airplanes to the end of the runway. Such a system could have saved hundreds of pounds of fuel per flight. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the extra wear and tear on the nose wheel would cost more than the savings generated by the reduced fuel burn.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

I was here first: Why don’t people in some countries form neat, orderly lines?

If you’ve tried to buy a train ticket in a place like Morocco or Indonesia, you know that this seemingly simple task is actually a full-contact sport. Rather than forming an orderly, single-file line, people are forced to scratch, claw, elbow, and gouge their way to the ticket window, in a process that even an Ultimate Fighting champion would describe as unnecessarily painful and violent.

So why does this happen? Why can’t people in certain, usually less-developed countries form neat, single-file lines? Here are a couple possible explanations:

1. There’s no incentive for the first person to stand in line. Though forming an orderly queue might be more efficient for everyone, it’s not beneficial enough to one particular person for him or her to go through the trouble of starting a line. This is a classic example of what economists call a “collective action problem,” in which a group of people are given a choice and, if following their individual self-interests, will choose an action that is suboptimal for the group overall. Merging on the highway is another example: It might be in your interest to cut in line at the last second, but if everyone chooses that same thing, the results will be worse than if everyone simply waited their turn.

2. The absence of orderly lines is not that big of a deal to people in these countries. Though seemingly chaotic and unnecessary to those of us in the “West”, the truth might be that these “mobs” actually work. Their structure– or lack of it– rewards those who want the ticket or item the most, and only displeases those who weren’t industrious (or ruthless) enough to work their way up to the front. This is a form of price discrimination in which those who were willing to “pay” the most, in this case with time and effort, are rewarded, while those who weren’t, aren’t.

Also, even in these sorts of “mobs,” there are a certain number of unwritten rules that people follow that tend to keep them approaching civility: for example, there’s usually no punching, scratching, pinching, or any kind of behavior that causes lasting physical harm. Though if it’s your first time experiencing an Indonesian train-ticket line, it will probably feel like a free-for-all. It isn’t, but almost.

3. These countries generally have less respect for the rule of law. In countries like the US, people tend to follow rules– even pointless ones– because they’ve been raised on the maxim that “following rules is good.” This is part of the reason we stop at red lights in deserted areas at 3 am, even when there’s no police car in sight. This is why we walk back and forth through those red ropes at the bank, like rats chasing a piece of cheese, even when the place is virtually empty.

People in developing countries can often not afford the luxury of pointless rule-following. If they miss a train because the ticket line was too long, that could have serious consequences for them. They might miss work, earn less money, and have to struggle that much harder. There’s a lot more at stake for them, so it’s understandable that people would want to get to the front of the line that much faster.

4. Finally, people do what their parents did. If people are taught that mobbing a ticket booth instead of standing in line is okay (and maybe it is– standing in line is not “objectively better”; I just happen to find it easier), it becomes very hard to transition to something else. It’s all about culture. If I were raised in Morocco, I wouldn’t see anything wrong with the practice, and instead of this article I’d probably have written one called, “Why can’t people in certain countries just crowd around a ticket booth?”

Really, Really Long Security Line in Heathrow

Here’s a video that will actually make you glad you’re sitting in front of a computer instead of being out on vacation. It’s footage of an unbelievably long security checkpoint queue in Heathrow Airport for passengers changing flights. The cameraman for this particular film spent over three and a half hours waiting in it.

The piece is almost three minutes long, and that wasn’t even enough time to film all of the people in line!

[via Boing Boing]

World’s Most Aggressive “Queue Jumpers”

One of the things that annoy me to no end when traveling are people who cut in front of you when waiting in line or as the British say “Queue Jumpers“.

Part of the problem is that I never know whether I should just relax, ignore it and let everyone get ahead of me (I am on vacation, after all… no rush to get any place) OR whether I should “do as the Romans do”, assimilate and become a champion queue jumper myself. I have a feeling I would be pretty good at it, too. What I do know is that most countries in the world could use an elementary school subject called “The Art of Forming a Line”. It would make the world seem a lot more civilized.

Every time I travel from the US back home to Prague I notice how much more aggressive people are in Europe about their spot in line (The UK is an obvious exception here). Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin airports…I swear sometimes you feel like if you don’t squeeze into the front, they would not let you board. The further east you go, the worst it gets.

I just read a piece in the December 23 “The Economist” about the airports in Russia which really made me laugh. The author is describing the various species of the Moscow airport queue jumper: “the brazen hoodlum, the incremental babushka and the queue-surfing clans who relocate in groups when one of their number reaches the front.” It reminded me of my trip to China where elbow-wrestling with 70-year old women in lines was a norm. The Darwinism of the 21st century is quite sad, really.