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At baggage claim, it's survival of the fittest

Subtle psychological cues are a big part of the behind-the-scenes strategy for getting passengers at Portland International Airport through security quickly. But down in baggage claim there is an efficiency problem that has airport officials stumped. They can’t get people to do what they want them to do.

You’re disembarking from a plane. Row by row, people are courteous and efficient, waiting for their turn to exit. Fifteen minutes later those same passengers are behaving inefficiently and uncooperatively at the baggage carousel. Rather than stand back and wait until their bag appears, everyone crowds toward the carousel. People occasionally have to push one another to get through and out with their bags. The same people that were so cooperative getting off the plane have completely different attitudes.

The solution is simple. If everyone were to stand 7 or 8 feet back from the carousel until their bag appeared, the operation would proceed much more efficiently. Steve Johnson, spokesman for the Port of Portland’s airport operations, says airport officials have discussed the problem. They’ve heard that a few airports have experimented with signs asking passengers to stand back from the carousel. But they’ve concluded it won’t work here.

“Bottom line is we don’t believe it will be effective,” Johnson says. “We feel signs alone are not going to be effective.”

It may be necessary to understand the why before the how in this case, says Sally Augustin, a Chicago environmental psychologist who studies how built environments affect people’s behavior.

The built environment inside the airplane is completely different than the one at baggage claim, according to Augustin. “We link certain behaviors with certain kinds of places,” she says. Think about how inside libraries most people naturally speak in hushed voices.

Being inside an airplane, according to Augustin, is comparable to riding in a tall building’s crowded elevator. “You’re much too close to people you don’t know,” she says. And that’s why people in an elevator tend to not make eye contact, abide by an unspoken agreement to divide up the elevator space evenly, and file out politely. It also explains why people file out of the plane politely, row by row.

Now those same people are at the baggage claim, but they’re not trapped in an environment that cues them to cooperate with one another. Around the carousel, Augustin says, sometimes people take the wrong bag. Sometimes people spot their bag on the conveyer belt and have to shove others out of the way to get to it and yank it off the belt quickly. There are no ready-made rules.

“The earlier bonds have extinguished, and it’s survival of the fittest,” Augustin says.

So here’s the solution, Augustin says. Put tape on the floor 7 or 8 feet back from the carousel so there’s room enough for everybody to see the conveyer belt. Put up signs asking people to stay behind the tape until they see their bag. But then, build into the front of the conveyer belt, where the bags first appear, something that McDonald’s has learned.

According to Augustin, McDonald’s faced a similar problem with customers who had ordered and received numbers to be called when their orders were ready. An electric sign above the front counter flashed a number when an order was ready to pick up. Customers, Augustin says, naturally crowded toward the front counter rather than standing back until their orders were ready.

So McDonald’s placed the electric sign so that unless customers were at least 8 feet or so back, they couldn’t see it. PDX could do the same, Augustin says. Use mirrors and baffles around the conveyer belt mouth so only people who stand back can see the bags coming out. As with nearly every other efficiency question, according to Augustin, the solution requires incentives.

“You have to build in some mechanism so people wish to stand back,” Augustin says.