Waiting in Line

Another installment of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything

About a year ago I travelled across America for the BBC. I visited Airports, Amusement parks, Highways and Community Colleges in order to understand how the priority queue is changing the American experience of waiting in line. A version of this piece aired on the BBC World Service, part of their Real America series.

Even though waiting in line is an essential part of the human experience, there is no such thing as a Universal Queue.

Well-mannered salarymen, by Hiromi

The most famous Queue is the traditional serpentine queue. First in, first out. It’s fair and democratic.

The priority queue is something totally different. In the priority queue some people wait less than others. Most often, because they pay more.

I first learned about the differences between priority queues and serpentine queues from Dr. Dick Larson, a professor at MIT and an internationally recognized expert in the field of operations research — or queueing theory. Most people call him Dr. Queue.

Dr. Queue

I first interviewed Dr. Queue for an episode of 99% invisible. I recommend giving that a listen too.


The airport is home to the most famous priority queues. First Class. Business Class. Economy. These queues are not created equal. One gets the line one pays for. Priority queues can make an Airline a lot of money.

Spirit Airlines takes this idea to the extreme charging customers for everything that is extra, baggage, boarding passes, even water. And while Spirit is one of America’s most complained about airlines, it is also one of the most profitable.

But are traditional American values like fairness and equal opportunity really compatible with letting someone buy their way to the front of the line? And what happens when the people who pay more want more? America is already suffering from extreme polarization, is it really a good idea to mess around with systems that further divide citizens into haves and have nots?

Lo-Q installed the flash pass at Six Flags White Water in the summer of 2011. It was a pilot project. Six Flags was concerned that their guests might reject the idea of yet another fee. Amusement parks are expensive, parking, lockers, food, admission it all adds up. But the Flash Pass was a huge hit. Guests lined up to pay twice as much to avoid the queues. Six flags is now installing the Flash Pass system in all of their American water parks.

Six Flags White Water is on the outskirts of Atlanta. If you are driving there you might take Interstate 85 part of the way. In October of 2011 the Georgia Department of Transportation created a Flash pass for I-85.

Drivers with a Peach Pass can now get out of traffic and ride in a special lane of their own.

For a fee, of course.


California’s state college system has offered a First Class education for generations. There are exclusive institutions like UC Berkeley and UCLA, but the UC system was designed to be accessible to everyone through its community colleges like Santa Monica. A few years ago Santa Monica tried to institute a two tiered initiative called “advance your dreams.” But after a series of massive protests, critics claimed this would subvert the mission of accessible higher education, and public outrage, the plan was scrapped.


Update: In October 2013 Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that now makes it possible for some of California’s Community Colleges to offer two-tiered tuition.

If the program is deemed successful, two-tiered tuition could be in effect at Santa Monica College in four years.