IT Career JumpStart

Dec 29 2010   7:21PM GMT

Holiday Distraction 2: The Vital Importance of Disciplined Queuing

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In computer science the way in which service requesters line up and obtain processing is called a “queuing discipline.” The average wait time to process a service request depends on how long the line of pending requests is (queue length), how that line gets organized and handled (queue delay), and how long it takes to handle an average request for service (service delay). Alas, at Baltimore Washington International (BWI) Thurgood Marshall airport yesterday morning, I saw all of this wonderful mathematical theory and predictability go to hell in a handbasket, when several hundred people trying to board flights abandoned any and all pretences at discipline and simply converged on a scant handful of beleaguered baggage handlers from all directions at once.

Though we arrived at the airport three hours before our scheduled departure time (and 4.5 hours before our eventual take-off) by 9 AM I was sweating our ability to get through the line, turn in our bags, and get through security in time to catch our flight. If my wife hadn’t finally lost patience completely and simply forced her way to the front of the line and obtained a service window with the baggage person, we might still be at the airport waiting for our turn.

Our airline really fell down on the job because they didn’t mark the lines in which people were supposed to stand for service, and because they were apparently too short-handed to keep somebody circulating outside the service desk to maintain order (and queuing discipline) and to answer questions about which line to stand in to obtain service for a specific flight. Dina, Gregory and I actually spent an hour in line getting to the service desk the first time only to be told that we were in the wrong line and they couldn’t help us. The lines weren’t labeled and they didn’t have anybody dispensing the information about which line to stand in, but we still had to go to the back of another line and inch our way back to the counter one more time.

It was when Dina and I noticed that four or more lines were all converging on the same (and only) baggage handler for our flight, that she took off on her mission to get us in front of that person. Anybody who’s ever studied round-robin priority queuing mechanisms knows that without a strict priority regimen and stringent enforcement of queue order and organization jobs (or people, in this case) waiting for service are subject to starvation (which means “no service at all.”).

Glad we made it through that maelstrom, and very glad to have gotten our flights home. Delta almost made up for this mayhem and frustration when after we arrived at Atlanta for our connecting flight with less than 30 minutes to spare, we were not only able to board our flight to Austin, but our luggage also made the same plane and got home with us at the same time. So it goes, when traveling during peak load times: agony, ecstacy, and brute survival, all mixed up together!

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