The Boarding Gate Queue and The Refusenik

The British preoccupation with queuing is well-documented, but the nuances of queues are strangely under-represented. There is a distinct difference, for instance, between the queue to get through airport security and the queues that congeal around hyped dining spots: while the latter carries an air of anticipation and enchantment, the former seems coercive and tedious. The queue that forms at airport departure gates prior to boarding is another category altogether. Here the queue is voluntary, like that of the foodies, but simultaneously carries with it a great burden of social responsibility.

Once a sufficient body of individual travellers has built up at the gate, it often seems only a matter of time before a queue breaks out, regardless of whether or not an actual boarding announcement has been made. Faced with the contrasting options of sitting or standing for the foreseeable future, some seemingly less herd-minded passengers may opt to stay put (justifiably so if the airline in question allocates seats at check-in). However, there are grounds for arguing that this refusal, particularly when accompanied by the kind of self-regard that might bring the phrase “herd-minded” into play, is based on an oversimplification of this quite context-specific species of queuing.

As pinpointed earlier, this particular queue is voluntary: no authority is directly responsible for creating and maintaining it, there are no rails or cords or scanners to be moved through one at a tie as at other points in the airport’s procession route. The departure gate queue is an emergent phenomenon, a result of any number of individual passengers’ decisions to play along. With what are these passengers “playing along”, then? An answer to that question might look something like this: not just with some figure of arbitrary order, but with the inevitability of that arbitrariness. It is inescapable that some passengers will pass through the departure gate before other passengers. Even in the absence of any voluntary queue, at some point somebody will need to stand up and hand over their boarding card, and somebody else will have to follow. The departure gate queue is a communal acceptance of the sheer randomness of this hierarchisation – with the obvious and notable exception of so-called “priority boarding” – expressed not through words but through the arrangement of bodies in space. The voluntary queue might seem like pointless busy-bodying, but it is actually an important piece of micro-social work, ensuring in advance that this randomness does not somehow become overruled by force or inscribed with hermeneutic value: if we all just wordlessly agree to stand in line, then our position in said line can only be attributed to the point at which we joined, and not to how hard we can push or to some more insidious social identity.

Rather, it is the refusenik that forces social identity into the picture. By opting out of this group-work, the unrepentant sitters pitch themselves into a loftier caste: the efforts undertaken by the queue-builders have enabled them to self-identify against what is perceived as a mindless or fussy mainstream. There is something apparently devilish about refusing to join the queue in this situation, chipping away as it does at the foundations of a collective effort to settle on some kind of order. However, the refuseniks’ sense of individual agency is absolutely reliant on the group-work they disdain: it is the pre-existence of a queue that ultimately enables them not to have to make the first, second or third move towards the gate, and thus surrender themselves to conformity.  

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