Getting people on and off an airplane quickly is so complicated that even an astrophysicist couldn’t figure it out.
The astrophysicist, Jason Steffen of Northwestern University, normally contemplates things such as axion-like particles. But after waiting in one boarding line too many, he turned to the mysteries of airline seating.
“I thought there had to be a better way,” he says.
So, after a series of calculations, he deduced that the best system would be a combination of filling window seats first, then middle and aisle ones, while spacing the boarding passengers two rows apart.
There was just one problem — passengers would have to board in precise order. Good luck with that.
“Well,” Steffen observes, “I understand why airline people aren’t calling me.”
But the search for the perfect boarding process goes on.
Most airlines allow first-class and other elite customers to board first. After that, some fill the rear rows first and work toward the front.
Others fill window seats and work in toward the aisle. Southwest Airlines has random seating: There are no assigned seats — passengers sort things out themselves. They can pay extra to be near the front of the boarding line.
All of this matters more than you might think.
Passengers want to board early to find space in the overhead bins for their carry-on bags. For airlines, every minute that a plane sits at the gate makes it more likely that the flight will be late, hurting the carrier’s on-time rating and causing passengers to miss connecting flights.
There’s an economic cost to running late, too. Researchers from Northern Illinois University say that at one major airline, which they didn’t identify, every extra minute at the gate added US$30 in costs.
Anything to tidy up the gate area will help, in the view of Yosief Ghirmai, an auditor for defence contractor Raytheon, who says foreign airlines make boarding much easier for elite-level frequent fliers like himself.
“The international airlines respect the priority boarding system,” Ghirmai says, citing Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways as an example. “Here, you have to fight to get to the priority boarding line — all the bags, all the kids. The concept (in the US) is the same, but the execution is much better over there.”
Boarding methods go back to the dawn of commercial flight, but they’ve gotten more complicated as the airlines have created different classes of passengers and sold the right to board early.
Since 2008, most large airlines have imposed fees for checking a bag, which encourages passengers to carry more on board. At the same time, airlines have reduced flights to control costs, making planes more crowded. The result: Space in the overhead bins has never been more valuable.
Recognising the potential value in that coveted real estate, Spirit Airlines began charging for stowing a bag in the overhead three years ago — the fee now runs up to US$100.
Spirit says the fee speeds up boarding by cutting down the number of carry-on bags.
In May, American began offering early boarding to passengers with just a personal item that fits under the seat. In a test at several airports, it cut boarding by two minutes per flight, according to Kevin Doeksen, the airline’s director of customer planning. With about 1,900 flights per day on American, that adds up.
The back-to-front system, still used by many airlines, seems logical. But some studies have shown that it’s slower than windows-middle-aisle.
“If you’re on the aisle and somebody sitting next to you in the middle seat shows up, you need to unbuckle and maybe get up,” says Ken Bostock, United’s managing director of customer experience. “That can take 20, 25 seconds, and that happens a lot during the boarding process.”