Airline Boarding and How to Make It Suck Less
Caught an unexpected segment in the news on airline boarding (ending is great):
I’ve mostly had (terrible) experiences with boarding Continental flights and I’ve often thought why the process is so screwed up. I’ve come up with the following conclusions myself:
- Problem: Last time I flew out of John Wayne International, literally 3/4 of the flight was “Elite” status. So when they did the pre-boarding, it was a huge throng of people boarding the plane at once, which negated the whole point of boarding the plane from the back first. There’s something broken about the system here because it creates a weird paradox. Being able to board the plane faster is a “benefit” of Elite status, but by using this system, it extends the overall boarding time, thereby actually making those with Elite status spend an overall longer period of time sitting on the plane. Solution: Elite status is only used in consideration for upgrades and seat selection at check-in, not boarding order.
- Problem: Gate reps don’t actually check the size of carry-ons. In some cases, preemptively removing larger carry-ons and forcing gate-checks would dramatically reduce overall boarding time since the large bag causes an additive delay effect. That is that it not only slows down the individual with the large bag, but also affects every passenger that boards after that passenger because a large bag taking up too much space forces “bin hunting”. Solution: Actually enforce the existing rules? Seems too simple to be true.
- Problem: No one keeps their outerwear until the boarding process is over. Nothing more frustrating than people stuffing their outerwear in the overhead before everyone has boarded. This takes up valuable overhead bin space and, again, delays the boarding process for everyone that comes afterwards by forcing bin hunting. Solution: Add coat hooks on the seats and people will more likely just hook their outerwear on the back of the seat for easy access.
- Problem: Some people just don’t give a damn what the gate rep calls — they’re just going to get onto the plane anyways. Solution: See below.
- Problem: Because of a combination of the above, it often causes folks to end up back-tracking and bin-hunting. Sometimes, it also causes folks to preemptively place their carry-ons in forward rows, thinking that there is no space in the back rows, which only further exacerbates the situation. Solution: See below
The whole process is generally full of chaos, completely inefficient, and seems dated — as if no one has stopped to think about these issues and how to solve them for decades. So it’s interesting to see this guy — Dr. Steffen — propose something new. But it got me thinking that this guy’s method still has an issue: it’s not realistic for gate reps to call out this seating scheme (one row, one aisle at a time). Yet this is what it demands as the process breaks down if you have passengers in row n-2 blocking passengers in row n. Furthermore, the Steffen method makes an assumption about the nature of people: that they will obey order and think in the best interest of everybody. When the gate rep calls the aisles for rows n, n-2, n-4, n-6, all of those folks are going to rush the counter at once in a single mass.
So I think an extension or more realistic approach to this method is necessary to get it to work: a new passenger queue system at the gate. It should be — like a plane — one center aisle with several color-coded lines on each side of the aisle and just have people queue up in “bins” first. It shouldn’t match the rows in count, but should be at a 1:3 ratio per bin. In essence, it’s a modified block boarding pattern, but we break it down within the block so that, for example, window aisle passengers in the block are in bin “Purple”, middle seat passengers are in bin “Blue”, and aisle seat passengers are in bin “Green”.
The gate rep would call bin “Purple 1” to board the window seat passengers in the rear of the plane. Then call “Purple 2” to queue the passengers in the window seat in the middle of the plane, then call “Purple 3” to queue the passengers in the window seat near the front of the plane. However, the real efficiency is in having the folks get into the bins first, before they are queued up. The current Continental system results in 60 people all standing around, blocking the entrance of the queue when all that’s needed is a bin system so they know where to line up.
This system acknowledges that the ideal boarding pattern cannot be achieved in real life and thus only attempts to gain efficiency by segmenting the users by zone in a pre-boarding line first. Now everyone isn’t standing around in one big mass, blocking the boarding line and rushing the line as soon as their block is called. It’s a hybrid of block and WILMA (which is what the Steffen method is) but not as granular as the Steffen method and adds an extra layer of organization at the gate to account for real-world considerations.