Picture this: you arrive at the airport comfortably ahead of schedule, you check in, cruise through security uneventfully, grab your MacBook, and sit at your gate. And then, something curious happens. Over the loudspeaker you hear the announcement that your flight has begun initial boarding. Initial boarding -- the words themselves seem to immediately cue anxiety. “Where’s my phone? My boarding pass? My everything?” Chaos ensues. Commotion starts, people start shotgunning what remains of their coffee, inhaling food, and hurriedly racing to jostle for a position in line.

Why though, do we do this? Why do people queue so early for flights when our seats are already assigned? Why do we feel that deep sense of fear that the next few hours may be spent in agony? Why can’t we enjoy the remaining 30 minutes of unimpeded leg room and free-flowing electricity?

Right up there with setting 6 different morning alarms, letting your food get cold while finding the perfect Netflix show, and tracking your package literally seconds after it’s shipped, queueing preemptively in airports is one of those things future humans will look back on and cock their heads in confusion. As it turns out, there’s a reason for this: Science. Thanks to nothing more than our evolutionary code, we’re often times at the mercy of our most basic instincts when it comes to airport etiquette. Here’s a quick rundown on why that’s the case.

FOMO: The Fear Of Missing Out

According to behavior experts, the fear of missing out is ingrained in our DNA. What’s more, the FOMO felt when unable to attend a party is the same thing you feel with something as innocent as a line of people. Even if you can rationalize the fact that lining up will have no bearing on your eventual wellbeing, the fear of missing out still takes over.

Herd Mentality

Herd mentality is the reason why chic donut stores and ice cream vendors have lines that wrap around the block. Are those stores’ donuts or ice cream exponentially better than that of a good competitor? Probably not. But when we see people in line, we have an innate impulse to join the crowd. In a study done by the University of Leeds, researchers found that the actions of as little as five people can influence a crowd of 100 to follow suit.

It’s a Competition, 24/7

Another reason we may queue early for flights is our natural competitive nature. As Ricky Bobby once said: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” We’re creatures with alpha impulses, and those impulses manifest themselves in airport lines. While driving in traffic, the pride you feel when shouldering your car one spot ahead is real and palpable (and so is the grudge when someone cuts you off). The same emotions are at play in airport queues, which makes for another reason why people line up prematurely.

The Bin Space Myth

This is perhaps the most prominent defense for queueing in advance. “If I don’t get in there ASAP,” we tell ourselves, “they’ll run out of room.” However, save for extremely rare circumstances, there is always enough space for your carry on luggage in the overhead bins. While it might be a few rows away, flight attendants and fellow travelers are usually very accommodating when it comes to helping you out. And, if there isn’t any room for your bag in the overhead bins, the airline is required by law to check it for free.

Along the same lines of our competitive alpha desires, this is where humans’ territorial tendencies come into play. If we don’t get the space we require, we can feel as though we’ve robbed ourselves of a precious opportunity.  

The Illusion of Being Productive

When you stand in a line, part of you feels a profound sense of purpose -- like you’re being productive, useful. And understandably, time spent feeling productive goes infinitely faster than time spent bored. If you arrived at the airport early and find yourself painstakingly bored, hop in line and watch the time pass by a bit quicker. Time with a purpose feels like it goes faster, and most people are eager about wrapping up the whole travel day as quickly as possible.

Hurry up and Wait...Again

Fast forward to the end of your flight, and you’ll see the queueing phenomenon happen again. The moment the flight attendants turn off the fasten seatbelt sign, everyone leaps into the aisle, muscles for their bag and shuffles forward while peering over the heads of the other passengers. In the final throes of a long flight, decency and respect for personal space often come secondary to the these evolutionary urges. If you’re crammed and just about had it with the not-so-subtle armrest competition, by all means hop up into the aisle. Just be aware that what you gain in a few rows of position may be lost in peace-of-mind.


A far less documented phenomenon that’s worth noting here is JOMO: the joy of missing out. Have you ever felt a certain sense of happiness after you elect to not take part in something? Perhaps bypassing a night of sugary cocktails and questionable decisions? JOMO is that little tingling in your chest when you’re wrapped in a blanket on the couch with a good book and wake up hangover-free.

For the people that have come to recognize the futility in queueing preemptively at the gate, they mostly feel a smug sense of happiness, like they’ve found a genius way to beat the system. When you’re staring at an anxious line of people, your coffee tastes a little better, your chair feels a little more comfortable, and the stresses of traveling a bit more bearable. All that being said, if you’re feeling a need for purpose and ready to get situated in your seat, there’s no shame in hopping in line -- just know that you’re a weak-minded sheep and just a cog in the-- no, we’re kidding. There’s no shame.


Written by: Dillon DuBois