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May 05 2014

How to cut airplane boarding times in half

When boarding airplanes, different airlines have different policies. The most common policy adopted by airlines is to board passengers by seat rows starting from the back. This makes a kind of intuitive sense. A few airlines have some kind of zone system. About three years ago, a physicist studied the issue using Monte Carlo simulations came up with a plan that can cut boarding times by half.

He found that the most efficient boarding method is to board alternate rows at a time, beginning with the window seats on one side, then the other, minimizing aisle interference. The window seats are followed by alternate rows of middle seats, then aisle seats. He also found that boarding at random is faster that boarding by blocks.

According to his estimates, this saving of time can lead to savings of over $100 million per carrier. According to this site, in the US only United has adopted something close to the window-middle-aisle scheme, while Southwest and US Airways have some kind of random seating.

So why haven’t these plans been adopted more widely three years later? I can think of several reasons other than simple inertia on the part of the airlines.

One is that as far as passengers are concerned, the time taken to board is among the least aggravating factors in air travel so changing it will not increase customer satisfaction by much.

Another is that people want to have a reasonable shot at getting space on the overhead bins for their luggage. If those in the aisles were always last to board, that would influence seat choices. Of course, the airlines could use that fact to nickel-and-dime people even more by charging a premium for window seats.

But what about random boarding? That sounds easy to do and fair. But even if it saves time, I would not like it because then those aggressive people who like to be the first to board for whatever reason will strive to be near the top of the line while those of us who don’t like to compete with others for positions in line will always end up at the back of long lines.

Ultimately, I think the main purpose of any boarding scheme is to have people line up in small numbers. There is something quite dispiriting about seeing really long lines.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Chiroptera

    Heh. When I was in Tanzania in the mid ’90s, the national airline (Air Tanzania) didn’t even have assigned seating. You just boarded when they opened the doors and grabbed a seat.

    It didn’t seem to take any longer to board than I was used to in the States, but you were never guaranteed to sit with the people you were traveling with.

  2. 2
    moarscienceplz

    Ultimately, I think the main purpose of any boarding scheme is to have people line up in small numbers.

    This is what Southwest Airlines does: Each pax is assigned a number, A1-A64, then B1-B64, based on check-in order (although you can pay extra to get a guaranteed A number). Then, pax line up by number, 1/4 of them at a time, and board in order. Seats are unassigned. I really like this system.

  3. 3
    psweet

    “One is that as far as passengers are concerned, the time taken to board is among the least aggravating factors in air travel so changing it will not increase customer satisfaction by much.”

    Yes, but how much impact does boarding time have on on-time rates, places in taxi queues, and employee productivity?

  4. 4
    richardrobinson

    I must be an unusual traveler. Boarding is by far the most stressful part of a flight for me and I far prefer to keep my bag on the floor, under the seat ahead of me. When travelling alone, I always ask for exit aisle seating, even if it doesn’t afford me any extra leg room, for the privilege of boarding first. I stow my bags, settle in, and wait patiently for take-off. I’m also happy to wait for most of the other passengers to clear when de-planing.

    It would be really easy to just add a “boarding group” field to boarding passes. Then you can assign folks according to any boarding scheme you like.

    Another draw back of the window-middle-aisle scheme is that you can’t board with your family, even if you’ll be sitting together. This would be a big problem for folks travelling with little ones. But you can modify the algorithm to keep groups together according to reservation. This would also help with random boarding.

  5. 5
    Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach

    My usual airport routine is to show up early and hit the airport bar after security. By the time boarding comes, I’m buzzed enough not to care how long it takes. And as a bonus, if you sit next to me at the bar and chat, I’ll usually buy your drinks.

  6. 6
    Trebuchet

    I’m afraid my standard airport procedure is to avoid them at all costs.

  7. 7
    Kevin Kehres

    Added to the current boarding mess is that now airlines are selling better boarding positions. If you’re a holder of their airline credit card, you get on ahead of the rest of the schlubs. Add to that all the frequent fliers, who also get preferred boarding, and if you’re not a frequent traveler on that specific airline — well, your chances of getting an overhead bin spot is pretty much nil.

    Several years ago, I was heading into John Wayne Airport (Orange County, CA). As they had an extremely strict “wheels down” regulation there, we had to get on our plane in Dallas pretty quickly or be stuck overnight. The gate agent boarded three rows at a time from the rear — no first-class or frequent-flier coddling. We filled the plane in less than 15 minutes and made it out on time.

    I kinda miss being a frequent flier — except for all the flying you have to do.

  8. 8
    Kevin Kehres

    @3 —

    on-time rates, places in taxi queues, and employee productivity

    Minimal at best. The airlines know how long it takes to board an airplane and adjust their doors-open time (the time boarding begins) according to the size of the plane and the number of passengers booked. They’re almost always finished 10 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time.

    Delays are almost always one of three things: 1) weather; 2) traffic heading to the runway (trying to fit a 5-pound ham into a 3-pound can); and 3) maintenance. Loading passengers and stuff is probably the least-frequent cause for delays. Because they can (and do) just close the doors when they’ve reached their “time to go” limit.

    FWIW: An “on-time departure” is defined as from when the plane pulls back from the gate. Never mind the 45-minute taxi line at some airports. However, an “on-time arrival” is defined as when the plane’s wheels touch the ground at its destination. Never mind the 20-minute taxiing time and other foofrah and falderal once on the ground. Which is why you should never-ever-ever accept a flight itinerary with less than a 45 minute gap between flights. I generally try for at least 1 hour.

  9. 9
    Crimson Clupeidae

    I think this method was tried. I’d have to go look for the paper I’m thinking of, but it didn’t work as well in real life as it did in theory. Many airlines went through a bit of a test phase with several different boarding schemes, but IIRC, they all came out so close as to be indistinguishable in the real world, so they go with something that’s simple. Apparently, when herding cattle, simple is better than efficient. ;-)

  10. 10
    keljopy

    The worst boarding experience I ever had was one in which all of the seats were assigned and there was no gate (I honestly can’t remember what airport it was, I think somewhere in South America) so they had two stairways up to the plane, one in the front and one in the back. They didn’t sort us into a specific door based on our seats and they had us all board at once. As soon as the doors open, one mass of people went up into the front and one into the back, and they met in the middle with half of each group needing to be on the opposite half of the plane with no way to get there. It took forever for the mess to sort itself out.

    So basically worst option = assigned seats + random boarding through multiple doors

  11. 11
    Lassi Hippeläinen

    The problem is that as soon as people find their seats they think they own the whole aisle. They stand there storing their bags in the overhead compartment, taking off coat, etc., and everyone else has to wait till the aisle opens again. Repeatedly.

    The proper way is to go to your seat, sit down with your bag and coat, and store them away only after everyone is onboard.

    Boarding would be even faster, if people were arranged in the seating order already in the lounge.

    While I’m waiting for reason to win the day, I’ll just sit in the lounge and board the plane as the last passenger. The lounge is more comfortable, and my seat in the plane won’t be taken.

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