Just how to best get passengers on a plane is an endlessly fascinating topic. It involves everything from physics (e.g., how many people can fit in an aisle at once) to marketing (e.g., how can the airline use boarding perks to differentiate customers) to human behavior (e.g., how do people choose to line up). That makes a recent report on American Airlines particularly interesting. Here’s the NBC summary.
So is this a good idea?
Whether it is or not depends on what we take as the status quo. That is, it may be a dumb idea but it could be less dumb than what they are currently doing. As we have posted about in the past, American implemented a random process about two years ago. (See here and here.) Letting those who don’t need an overhead bin go first seems to build on this. If they are scattered around the plane, then they are effectively boarding randomly. It would also seem to free up aisle space more quickly to the extent that those with just a laptop bag can get into their assigned seat tout de suite. According to the Associated Press (American will favor passengers without roller bags, May 16), American believes that this will save them two minutes per flight.
But there are some catches here in how they are implementing this policy.
American tested the new boarding procedure at several airports earlier this year and began applying it to all flights Thursday. Passengers carrying just a personal item — a purse, backpack or computer bag that will fit under the seat — will board right after Group 1 premium passengers and before boarding groups 2, 3 and 4.
The airline said that it will let passengers check a carry-on bag at the gate at no charge. That means savvy travelers will be able to move up in the boarding order and avoid checked-bag fees — $25 for the first bag, $35 for a second on flights within the U.S. — although they’ll have to retrieve their bag at baggage claim after they land.
Consequently, passengers don’t have to commit to parting with their roll-aboard until they are at the gate. Indeed, they have incentive to do so since they dodge the checked bag fee. The question then is whether the additional work of gate checking bags will ultimately outweigh the time gained from less fighting for overhead space.
I suspect that this system might work well. Why? Because there is now a reason to for passengers to give up their bags early. Currently, when a flight is very full, the gate staff announces that overhead space will be tight and if you are in a late-boarding group that you may be up a creek. It’s not clear that announcement is enough of reason to part with your bag. There is no clear benefit to giving up the bag so why not see if you luck out? Now, there is a reason to give up the bag. Said another way, gate checking bags are already part of the process but this system may help it be a bit more orderly.
A final point, American is not alone in playing with this approach. A former student emailed last month explaining that Air Canada was piloting such a process.