Prescript: I drafted and pre-scheduled this article late last year … who would have imagined that life, and the airline industry specifically, could be utterly derailed by a lethal virus?
Boarding an airplane is one of the most inefficient aspects of flying.
There’s no money to be made when a plane is sitting on the ground. Little wonder, then, that airlines have attempted for decades to improve the boarding process—usually with little to no success.
Airlines and airports have engaged industrial engineers, logistics experts, and university researchers to study how to get passengers into their planes in a timely fashion. They’ve experimented with back-to-front, window-to-aisle, every-other-row, and many seating combinations thereof. The improvements have turned out marginal at best.
A Little Too Theoretical to Work Well
No airline seems to have cracked the code for efficient boarding because of the same old reasons—much of the sequencing models and organizing tests are a little too theoretical for reality and are reductive about human behavior.
All the boarding methods have an implicit assumption that passengers are orderly and don’t create frustrating bottlenecks. But, when it comes down to it, passengers simply can’t lend themselves to the airline’s preferred boarding order. Passengers don’t show up at the gate on time and organize themselves precisely in the airline’s prescribed sequence. Once onboard, they don’t place their carryon bags into bins promptly and clear the aisle swiftly.
To make matters worse, airlines need to treat some passengers preferentially—the highest paying customers, loyal frequent flyers, military personnel, people with special needs, and families with young kids must board before general boarding. Then there’re complications arising from making passengers pay for carryon bags. Passengers with bare-bones tickets are not only given middle seats but also inconvenienced enough to board in the end and then scramble for overhead bin space for their bags.
All these complexities add a significant burden on gate agents and flight attendants, who, while making every effort for an on-time departure, must monitor passengers boarding when they must, carrying paid-for carryon bags, and using overhead bin space near their seats.
Basic Human Nature is the Inhibiting Factor
Given the not-so-orderly-and-decorous tendencies of humans, no one boarding method has statistically proved to be consistently and reliably better than others. As a result, airlines fall back on a variety of general boarding schemes, usually some combinations of back-to-front and window-to-aisle arrangement.
In my experience, the “free-for-all” seating that Southwest Airlines operates appears the fastest. Southwest’s passengers don’t get assigned seat numbers, so they have the freedom to sit anywhere they want. They line up for boarding in the order they check-in and reach the gate. Once onboard, they move quickly to find the best available seats and keep out of each other’s way. Southwest is also helped by the fact that passengers tend to have fewer and smaller carryon bags because Southwest doesn’t charge for checked luggage.