Getting people on and off planes is a fascinating topic. Most people have a very visceral response to it if only because it is a business process that we are routinely exposed that often does not run well. Why it doesn’t run well can be blamed on the airline (since there is not the same degree of process standardization in boarding that one sees at, say, a supermarket checkout) or our fellow travelers (since those idiots so often don’t follow instructions). There have been some recent innovations such as boarding passengers in a random fashion or allowing those who do not need an overhead bin to board first. Now Wired reports that other process changes are coming (Airlines Still Trying to Make Passenger Boarding Less Annoying, Aug 28).
The most unusual — and deceptively simple — idea is simply opening the door at the rear of the plane in addition to the door at the front. Alaska Airlines is trying this at a few airports, including its home base in Seattle and Mineta San Jose International Airport in San Jose, California. The idea isn’t entirely new — many airlines, including Alaska, open the front and rear doors at those airports where there is no jetway, only a staircase leading to the tarmac.
“We’ve been doing the dual-door boarding at some of our Mexico destinations for a while,” says Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan. But now the airline has a new tool to help facilitate using both doors at other airports. “Because of the solar-powered ramp, we’re testing the idea of dual-door boarding at airports where we didn’t have it before.”
Yes, a solar-powered ramp. Mounted on wheels, the ramp can be driven to the backdoor of the airplane, and passengers make two switch-back turns down the ramp to the ground, providing an alternative to stairs for easy suitcase rolling and wheelchair access.
Using the aft door to unload passengers can reduce the turnaround time by up to 10 minutes, according to Alaska. Egan says the airline will continue to evaluate the data and feedback collected, but for now it’s a pilot project there’s no word yet on whether the process will be expanded to other airports.
Yes, elegant and simple. There may be some issues on how widely one could do this. In a busy hub airport for an airline larger than Alaska, having enough ramps as well as space to route customers may be a challenge. For example, doing this a for a large number of United or American planes at O’Hare on a February day on which they are also de-icing planes may — for lack of better phrasing — not fly.
Interestingly, not everyone would agree that tweaking the boarding process is the Holy Grail of improved customer service. Consider the following from a Joel Peterson on LinkedIn (A Common Sense Solution to Slow Airplane Boarding, Aug 27).
[S]peeding up the slow boarding process isn’t about tinkering with the order in which you let people on the plane. It’s about the amount of time passengers spend in the aisle, hefting their bags into the overhead compartments, and stowing them under the seats. The more and bigger bags people bring on, the slower the line moves.
It doesn’t help that many carriers now charge $25 for the first checked bag on domestic flights, and more for a second. That amounts to inviting people to carry on luggage instead of paying to check it. So, more passengers bring on bags, and overhead space fills up faster. When the bin space fills up, the crew begins to ask passengers to check luggage at the gate. As air travelers, we know that gate checking neither speeds things up nor calms us down.
Clever algorithms may shave off a minute or two – if they don’t completely confuse passengers first. But if the industry really wants to speed up boarding, it’ll have to stop charging for checked bags.
At first glance, this sentiment will induce nods of agreement but then it can be easily dismissed as the naive rantings of a frustrated traveler. Except that Mr. Peterson isn’t just some disgruntled road warrior; he is the chairman of JetBlue. Hence, he is not merely ranting but putting his money where his mouth is. His airline does not charge for the first checked bag and he goes on to describe baggage fees as “bad profits” that come at the expense of customer relationships.
There are several layers in thinking about this. First, managing services is in part also about managing customers. Getting people to do what you want or need them to do can be challenging and usage fees of one sort or another are an important tool in directing customer behavior. Baggage fees can be an important part of this, as we have written about before.
There is also the question about how baggage fees interacting with everything else the firm does in its pricing. If customers are concerned about scoring overhead space, they may pony up for early boarding or concentrate their travel purchases to maintain their premier status on the airline. That is, passing on a baggage fees may mean giving up revenue beyond just $25 a bag.
Finally, there is the question of whether eliminating baggage fees would in fact change behavior. Many people have now learned that they can live for a week out of relatively small suitcase. Even if they could now check that bag for free, would they? When you check your bag instead of carrying it on, the TSA or someone else may go through it without you there. You are dependent on the airline to bring your bag out quickly and so on. Checking a bag was never free; it always involved some amount of delay or inconvenience. If passengers have learned that they can avoid that, why should they be willing to go back to it?