Many years ago, I was flying from Boston back to Durham, NC, and sitting next to a senior colleague. My colleague asked what I would do to speed loading a plane. My answer was to eliminate overhead bins. I, of course, understand that there are one hundred and one reasons why that will never happen but I think that my answer is now more true than ever. More passengers are carrying on more stuff and that has slowed loading passengers. Given that some estimate that every minute spent loading a plane adds $30 to the cost of the flight, it is not surprising that airlines keep tweaking how they put people on planes. Enter American Airlines and random boarding (American Airlines changes its boarding process, LA Times, June 27).
The new boarding procedure, launched in May, does away with the airline’s long-held practice of boarding passengers starting from the back of the plane to the front.
Once the first-class and executive-class passengers and other travelers with priority seating get onboard, the airline gate agents now board coach passengers in the order they checked in, regardless of where they are seated.
The airline says the new procedure, known as the “random” seating method, saves time because it minimizes the gridlock that occurs when people in the same row try to get to their seats at the same time.
“You definitely will not have 24 people in four rows boarding at the same time,” said Scott Santoro, director of airport consulting for American Airlines. He said studies have shown that the random seating process reduces boarding times 5% to 10%.
So what are the alternative? The articles give several.
All major airlines first board the first-class, business-class or elite-status passengers and the travelers with children or disabilities. But after that, strategies diverge.
Airlines, JetBlue Airways, US Airways, Continental Airlines and several others load their planes from the back of the cabin to the front.
United Airlines prefers the “outside-in” method: Passengers with window seats board first, then those with middle seats and finally those with aisle seats. Southwest Airlines doesn’t assign seats; the first passengers to check in are the first to board.
Until recently, US Airways used the “reverse-pyramid” method, in which passengers are seated simultaneously from both ends of the plane, window-seat passengers first.
SeatGuru.com has a wonderful page that displays these alternative graphically. As the article notes academics (who must, of course, be right) claim that the reverse-pyramid method is the best. This is plausible since it favors loading up the outside and back first.
So does American’s new system make sense?
It seems that there are several layers to this. First, I first heard of evaluations of things like reverse-pyramid boarding years ago when plans weren’t as full, it was free to check a bag, and airlines didn’t sell premium access to boarding. Current high load factors combined with more passengers carrying on big bags means that boarding is inherently going to take more time. These also combine to make early boarding more of a premium service since one is pretty much assured of having overhead space.
That all suggests that a modern boarding system must cope with planes that are often heavily loaded before the main boarding process starts. Does the reverse pyramid work so great when all the aisle seats in the first 15 rows of coach are full before the boarding process actually begins? These are the very seats that the reverse-pyramid wants to fill last.
But what does random boarding do? To some extent it allows American to mimic Southwest’s famous first-come first-served methodology. Southwest has long been hailed as the king of the quick gate turn. Absent assigned seats, passengers have an incentive to grab the prime real estate at the front of the plane (just like American’s elite fliers will) and then work backward. People will end up randomly scattered depending on whether they prefer an aisle in back to a middle seat up front. Why is this do different from what American is doing? If it works for Southwest, why shouldn’t be feasible for American?