The Sneaky Way This Texas Airport Ended Passengers’ Complaints About Long Waits

by SharonKurheg

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the age of social media, it’s that you should fact-check stuff before you write about them. From the Airbnb owner that wouldn’t allow vaccinated guests during the pandemic, to the thousands of people who pass along online travel hoaxes (like these), there’s a plethora of stuff out there that just isn’t true, waiting for the next naive person to believe it.

So when I saw this meme, I took it with a grain of salt:a person walking with a luggage bag

When travellers started complaining about how long they had to wait for their luggage at the Houston airport, the airport moved the arrival gate farther away so that the walk to baggage claim was longer than the wait. Complaints dropped to nearly zero after that.

I decided to do some investigating.

My first stop was, of course, Snopes. As of this writing, a search for HOUSTON LUGGAGE doesn’t show any hits. So it was never covered in Snopes. ThatsNonsense hadn’t covered it either.

So then I went to Google. A search for HOUSTON WAIT COMPLAINT LUGGAGE garnered nearly 800,000 hits.

  • Reddit had a huge discussion about it in 2012. They linked to something in the New York Times, and most of the replies in the Reddit thread were about corporate changes each writer had observed or were a part of.
  • Keynote speaker Stephen Shapiro also linked to the New York Times article in 2012, as part of a post about problem-solving and the perception of pain (psychological pain, not physical pain).
  • In 2015, AlertTech, a hardware, software, and product design company, used the story as a way to show there are different ways to solve a problem, one of which is by distracting customers.
  • The Guardian paraphrased the Houston story in 2018 (and it sounded as if they were referring to the NY Times post as well), as a means to discuss how to beat bottlenecks.

I couldn’t find anything about the topic that was posted before 2012, so I had to assume that when the Houston airport change originally happened, it either wasn’t considered newsworthy, or they simply didn’t want people to realize what was being done. So it was kept relatively quiet. Which meant it was the New York Times that “broke the story,” albeit years later.

When the New York Times piece was published back on August 18, 2012, it wasn’t even a story per se – it was the introduction of an opinion piece that was mainly about how people hate to wait; the author, Alex Stone, used the Houston Airport story as a prime example. Here’s how he described it:

SOME years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.

Joe and I have flown through both of Houston’s airports, but never into either. So we’ve never had the pleasure 😉 of waiting a long time at the airport in question for our luggage to come, or walking a long time to get to baggage claim. If you have, please speak up!

Assuming the story is true (and I don’t doubt that it is – why would make up something so specific?), I think the executives at whichever Houston airport it was, be it Bush Intercontinental Airport or William P. Hobby Airport, were geniuses to figure that out.

Sneaky, sneaky geniuses.

I do wonder if they started getting complaints about the long walk, though… 😉

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Pete September 20, 2021 - 3:25 pm

That works to an extent but does that mean that none of the closer arrival gates and baggage carousels are being used? Who uses them then?

Chris April 9, 2023 - 2:04 pm

In theory, you’d put the bags from the closest gates at the farthest claims and vice versa. So Gate 1 might use claim 10 (long walk through baggage claim) while Gate 10 would use claim 1 (long walk through the concourse).

I’m skeptical of whether or not this is true. Among other things, hub airlines prefer to group flights at baggage claim by origin (e.g., all the O’Hare bags go to the same place) in case of IRROPS; and airlines definitely prefer not to change all of their resource allocations for the day when a delay leads to a gate change.

Scott September 20, 2021 - 7:07 pm

the supposed 1 minute time makes me think Hobby

peng June 8, 2022 - 10:32 pm

thanks for the summary. I’m writing a book on business analytics and tried to fact-check this story to use it as a business case (it’s really good, isn’t it), but couldn’t find the time and source either. In my mind the airport probably re-arranged the landing gates, the complaints probably come from certain flights that always land at the closest to baggage area. just mixing it up a bit should do the trick.

Claire April 8, 2023 - 9:01 pm

So—7 minutes to walk to the furthest gate. Are people really that impatient? Could not wait 7 minutes for bags?
I think people these days are whiners and complainers. I guess I’m old and cranky .

Chris April 9, 2023 - 2:06 pm

It’s a well-documented phenomenon that time spent waiting is perceived as much longer than time spent moving. It can be mitigated somewhat by giving a prediction of when whatever you’re waiting for will arrive, which is why transit agencies spend a lot of money putting “next bus” systems in bus shelters.

I still don’t think this story is true, but what’s the harm in making a small resource adjustment to make people feel better?

Enjoy Fine Food April 8, 2023 - 10:17 pm

I suspected this recently at CVG when our late night arrival from ATL was docked at the extreme end of the Delta arrivals gates. We passed dozens of dark, empty gates on our way to the train to baggage claim. Didn’t work. Still had to wait several minutes for our bags to hit the carousel.

Chris April 9, 2023 - 2:08 pm

Usually, gate assignments are made hours in advance and can have many factors involved, like ramp agent scheduling, aircraft compatibility, overnight maintenance, and even what their plan is for gating for the following morning. When you’re at an end gate, it’s often because of aircraft gauge (and that’s not always about widebodies versus narrowbodies – sometimes it can be simpler issues like the slope of the jet bridge based on the sill height of the aircraft).

Tom April 8, 2023 - 10:21 pm

I’m not sure that I even buy the premise here …. That Houston airports / airlines care about passenger complaints. The United luggage wait times at IAH are still unacceptable today. I try not to check at bag so I can avoid that long walk from terminal E to Terminal C. (Actually I try to avoid IAH period.)

A few years ago there used to be a shortcut bridge from terminal C United checkin area to terminal E. There was even a little TSA checkpoint there at one point. Well that was killed off and…. I get why TSA didn’t want to staff another checkpoint (TSA at IAH is very cheap and hence minimally staffed) but why not keep it for exiting passengers? …. Well it must have just been too convenient for passengers and they can’t have that.

NedsKid April 9, 2023 - 12:08 am

I’ve only checked a bag into Hobby on Southwest and had to wait awhile.. but I find Southwest’s bag wait times to generally abhorrent. At my local airport, somehow Spirit can have bags to claim in 10-15 minutes and Southwest from the very next gate takes a half hour, or at BWI it always seemed to be 45 minutes with WN no matter what (DL bags would beat me to the claim, and that was sitting in row 1 and taking 6.5 minutes to walk it). But, that’s a function of their staffing.

I suspect with IAH the overall airport geography probably naturally increased distances, especially in A and B where construction is pushed out further than the old gates for the most part, and people are funneled to a limited number of exits versus one for each pier.

TSA staffing is a function of overall federal funding and staffing limitations. Houston is lucky in that each airport functions as its own administrative group with it’s own Federal Security Director… many times a metro area or an entire state (minus like one major airport) is grouped together and that’s how they get their staffing allocation. The FTE budget they get is not just for screeners – it’s for transportation security inspectors, behavior detection officers, K-9 handlers, even the admin folks. Some where it makes sense seem to split as much into part time to have more heads for the same FTE. I know in IAH with the whole E/F/FIS security consolidation thing extra capacity had to be put in at C so that likely is where the small checkpoint disappeared. Exit lanes also eat up staffing. Closing one exit lane basically staffs one more security lane for an 8 hour shift. The airport can also spend money to put in infrastructure to put in automated exits.

InLA April 9, 2023 - 4:44 am

Considering that nobody can source the origins of this story (“Some years ago executives …”), is it possible that it’s actually a minor urban legend that never arose to the level of Snopes? It could be that in the normal course of airport expansions and reconfigurations that the baggage claim ended up further from the gates. Then someone makes a joke that reason the gates are so far away is so that it seems your luggage arrived quickly. The joke gets repeated and becomes a meme. I have no basis for this, but neither does the premise of this story.

StAugustine April 9, 2023 - 11:55 am

Have flown twice into MCO Terminal C on JetBlue. Both times after our long walk from the gate to baggage claim our bags were waiting for us.

SharonKurheg April 9, 2023 - 12:02 pm

OK. But that’s MCO, not Houston 😉

Ely Tandeter April 9, 2023 - 5:55 pm

I noticed this a long time ago. Unless I am connecting, I never rush to leave the plane. That way my wait at the luggage claim feels shorter.

Joe Flyboy April 10, 2023 - 2:57 pm

Clearly no one commenting has ever worked at an airport. This story is most likely made up like so many stories that claim creative solutions that worked. Airport executives don’t control anything dealing with baggage, that is left entirely to the airlines. Airports are usually government owned. They lease gates to airlines and sometimes airlines sublet the gate to other airlines. Gates are assigned by the airlines based on their needs and operations. Generally the only metric airlines are concerned with is “on time performance” as that’s what those who rate airlines tend to look at when ranking. There was a push for faster baggage delivery at various times, usually something like the first bag was supposed to hit the baggage claim 10 minutes after the plane blocked in, but generally no one working flights cares that much about it. Local bags are usually loaded in a different bin than transfer bags. But airport lay out, congestion, and time of day all play into how fast you get your bags. Maybe we could all stop complaining about everything flying related and remember you can fly to almost anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours, be amazed by that.

jladams97 April 11, 2023 - 7:41 pm

Maybe I’m missing it here, but I’m not seeing anyone having posted the most obvious reason this can’t be true: when a plane comes into a gate, it also leaves from that gate. They don’t bring a plane into a gate and then move it to another gate for the next flight. Therefore, unless they’re simply not using some of the gates (which at the busy Houston airports is definitely not the case), there is no possibility of bringing all flights in on gates that require a longer walk to baggage claim. For the nearest gates they could assign the farthest carousels but they simply couldn’t make all flights arrive at gates farther from baggage claim.

Fred April 11, 2023 - 11:22 pm

Long time IAH traveller here, and I suspect IAH is the airport in question. I don’t know for sure though. Since when the new intl processing facility opened (2010ish +-??) United has had all the E gates. Terminal C used to be more traditional satellite structure like term B before it also got an expansion that pushed most of the gates further from the terminal. With the changes, domestic flights into term E/C all have their baggage at the term C baggage claim. Only intl baggage gets picked up at term E. It’s a 5-10 min walk from E gates to the C baggage claim. From the new C term, it is at least 5 min walk. I doubt the motivation was to decrease complaints, maybe a happy coincidence. More like the longer walk is needed to accommodate the increased number of gates. Will be interesting to see how things change with the new E upgrades…

Houston Traveller April 12, 2023 - 6:24 am

I regularly use IAH as well as HOU and if there is any truth to the story, they are definitely talking about IAH. In comparison, IAH has the mod God-awful waits for luggage and that’s after a much longer walk than HOU.

However, I suspect this is annual legend as to “make people walk further” would mean building a new, further away terminal. All gates are full all the time, so it’s not a matter of just “selecting” a further away gate.

And, as I say, I’ve arrived at the Timbuktu gate at IAH, taken my time getting off the lane because I know the wait times, walked to baggage claim (there all sort of clustered around the elevators, so there’s really not a “furthest”) and still waited 30 more minutes for my luggage.

Anne April 13, 2023 - 11:30 am

I often wondered why at ANY airport, if I’m on the last flight in we always seem to be at the farthest gate…Chicago (both), Saint Louis, Palm Spings (nothing too far), Toronto, etc… this is a light bulb moment… too few ground crew…long walk…shorter wait for baggage! They’re all doing it!!

Just a few and still grumpy April 14, 2023 - 12:53 pm

Except all four of the times I flew into Houston this past year and a half, after walking that ridiculously long walk… I still had to wait an additional 15 more minutes. Needless to say I was grumpy and tired.


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