How to get people onto planes is an interesting topic. It is a process most of us go through with some regularity and it is hard not to think that there has to be a better way. There are many articles in the popular press explaining that in many ways airlines are doing it wrong (for an example, see this recent Quartz article). Academics like publishing papers on new methodologies that purport to work better — even if their approach is at best whimsical (would an airline assign seats based on who has carry on luggage?). But what if the secret to a smooth boarding process was really in the gate area not in the jet bridge or plane aisle?
That essentially is the premise of some work reported in the Wall Street Journal (In Tests, Scientists Try to Change Behaviors, Jul 28).
At the Copenhagen airport, Dr. Hansen recently deployed a team of three young researchers to mill about a gate in terminal B. The trio was dressed casually in jeans and wore backpacks. They blended in with the passengers, except for the badges they wore displaying airport credentials, and the clipboards and pens they carried to record how the boarding process unfolds. …
The researchers are mapping out gate-seating patterns for a total of about 500 flights. Some early observations: The more people who are standing, the more chaotic boarding tends to be. Copenhagen airport seating areas are designed for groups, even though most travelers come solo or in pairs. Solo flyers like to sit in a corner and put their bag on an adjacent seat. Pairs of travelers tend to perch anywhere as long as they can sit side-by-side.
For the next stage of the project, the airport has given the researchers permission to change seating configurations at some terminal gates to figure out which arrangements are most likely to encourage greater numbers of passengers to sit down and help make the boarding process more orderly. Among possible ideas the team is considering are expanding the number of spots that could encourage single travelers to sit and placing signs with updates about the status of the boarding in key locations.
When people are uncertain about the process, they tend to follow each other, and that can lead to a large group of people clogging up the boarding, Dr. Hansen says.
I think that this is interesting work. Most studies of getting people onto planes focus solely on what happens within the plane’s aisles. Such studies inevitably ignore that what is happening at the gate is often confusing and frustrating as customers form a scrum waiting to board. The actual process of shuffling down the aisle may well be less unpleasant than squeezing through Group 4 passengers who have no reason to be out of their seats yet.
Studies that focus on solely on what happens within the plane are also generally ignore that airlines will always treat their best customers differently (which is to say better) than the unwashed masses. Whatever theoretic benefits there are to be had from a new boarding routine almost certainly won’t be seen on a Monday morning flight from O’Hare to LaGuardia. Those planes are crammed with double platinum elite flyers and all of them are going to be exempted from the boarding algorithm.
Nudges at the gate are different. Something that provides guidance and clarity to the process would make life better for both frequent fliers and those who take a trip once a year. I see two challenges in making this work. First, I expect that it will take a lot of trial and error to make the system work without having gate agents screaming like Sister Mary Elephant. A successful system would alter behavior without being blatantly coercive.
The second issue is one of real estate. Airport gates have a finite amount of space and there may ultimately be a trade off between inducing the desired behavior and parking people. This is in part a question of how an airport deals with disruption. On a day-to-day basis, setting up gates so people stay sitting longer may be desirable but if that means fewer places to sit when weather has backed up flights, other problems may crop up.