Welcome to AFAR Answers: a deep dive into all your unanswered travel questions. Next up: Why can’t airlines fix the boarding process?
Improving the airplane boarding experience has become something of a holy grail over the years, especially after a 1998 Boeing study suggested that airlines could increase profits by decreasing airplane turnaround time. Since then, airlines have invested significant time and money into seeing if they can speed up one of the most frustrating parts of air travel—and that’s saying a lot, considering the other frustrating elements of flying.
However, despite the efforts of a never-ending parade of brainiacs that has included engineers, swarm theorists, mathematicians, and even an astrophysicist, the boarding process remains a convoluted, hurry-up-and-wait fiasco that brews stress (how early do I have to line up in my group lane?), panic (will there be enough room for my bag or will I be forced to gate-check?), and existential self-loathing (why am I not good enough to be in a higher group number?).
In the past few years, humans have invented watches that can tell when a person is experiencing a heart arrhythmia; we’ve created Oreos that taste like cold ice cream; and we’ve made it so that we never have to speak to a cab driver again in our lives. So why can’t someone fix the boarding process? Or rather, why won’t they? We went looking for answers.
What airlines already know
Following the Boeing study, several airlines tried new boarding processes themselves. In 2005, AirTran Airways started using something it referred to as rotating zone system: the last five rows board, and then the first five rows board, and then the second-to-last five rows board—swapping from back to front until everyone is seated.
Around the same time, US Airways tapped Arizona State University engineers for a solution, and they created a complicated system dubbed the Reverse Pyramid, wherein passengers were called by zone, but within that zone they would board in a pattern of rear and middle, then front rear and middle, then rear aisle, then front aisle. United rolled out a method known as WilMA, a loose acronym for boarding Window, Middle, then Aisle seats (the i and l are as superfluous as ashtrays in airplane bathrooms). It was proven to be fast but not very popular. (For avgeeks who still want to try it, Lufthansa uses a WiLMA variation today.)
The latest chapter in this saga recently took place at Gatwick, the second busiest airport serving London (after Heathrow), where the powers that be ran a two-month experiment with easyJet to see if they could get people onto planes faster, using a variation of the WilMA method. Here, the boarding dance was choreographed via a digital screen that indicated when specific seat numbers were allowed to get on—a visual aid meant to prevent the great gate hover, and which passengers were calling “bingo boarding,” according to a BBC report. Gatwick officials saw decent results: In one run, 158 passengers got onboard and seated in 14 minutes—that’s 2 to 3 minutes faster than usual.
What science knows
In 2008, a rocket scientist wrote a paper. Frustrated with his own airplane-boarding experiences, Jason Steffen—then a postdoctoral fellow at Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics and now an assistant professor of physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—came up with a method that was more efficient and faster than all the rest.
Steffen argued that his was optimal because it solves for the main types of boarding delays: aisle interference (when a passenger clogs up the aisle) and seat position interference (when an aisle or middle-seat person has to move back into the aisle to let the window person in). In the Steffen Method, as others started calling it, passengers board window-to-aisle and back-to-front, just like in WiLMA, but the twist is that they board in alternating rows, so that bag stowers are spaced apart from each other in the aisle and no one is playing human chess when trying to access their seat.
In light of his research, Steffen was contacted by various media outlets, including Wired and NPR, which were impressed by his use of logic, science, and common sense. But did he get any feedback from the airline industry? “Crickets,” Steffen told us by email. In 2012, he released another paper, this time with TV producer Jon Hotchkiss. For Hotchkiss’s show This vs. That, the duo tested five methods of boarding in a simulation with real people and real luggage, and these are how they rated, from fastest to slowest:
Steffen Method: Fliers board back-to-front and window-to-aisle, but instead of boarding row by row, they board by every other row, staggering the flow of people to combat both seat and aisle jam-ups at the same time.
WilMA: Rows board from back-to-front, but with windows getting on first, then middles, then aisles. This process addresses seat interference, but aisle interference is still an issue.
Random: This is what it sounds like—passengers get no row or seat assignments. They just line up and grab a seat.
Block boarding: Passengers are assigned a boarding block, zone, or group according to general location but with no regard for row assignment or seat placement within that zone. This is what most airlines use today, and (as we’ve all seen) it’s a process that creates a lot of seat interference and aisle interference.
Back-to-front: Passengers line up and board according to their rows but with no heed to seat numbers. As a result, seat interference is high.
Two years after this, in 2014, John Milne, an engineering and management professor at Clarkson University, coauthored two papers that built on the Steffen Method. Milne and his colleagues showed that boarding time could be even faster if passengers boarded according to how much baggage they’re carrying. This, they argued, would address a third type of delay: luggage interference, which happens when everyone comes to a standstill while a few passengers stow things in bins.
Also in 2014, popular TV show Mythbusters entered the conversation with a segment testing the myth that the back-to-front method used by most airlines was really the slowest. Spoiler: It was. Surprisingly, in the simulation, the Mythbuster crew found that random boarding with no seat assignments was the fastest, but that it was also the most unappealing to passengers.
This echoed what American Airlines had found from its own study in 2011: that random boarding could be 5 to 10 percent faster. American changed its process as a result but with some tweaks to make the experience less chaotic, seating passengers according to when they checked in but regardless of row or seat. These days, though, American’s process is no longer random; it resembles the group-boarding process that most carriers use, and passengers are divvied up into 11 groups.
What airlines are doing with all this knowledge
Despite all the research and proof that back-to-front boarding and block boarding are the slowest options, most airlines still use them or some combination of the two. JetBlue boards by groups designated at check-in. Frontier assigns groups based on the extra perks passengers have purchased, like a carry-on bag. United and Delta assign groups based on a combination of class and priority status. In all cases, the steps are basically the same: People crowd the gate in lanes that correspond to their designated groups, press closer to the jetway door as they wait for that group to be called, and then queue again in the jetway and aisle while everyone who boarded before them shuffles for seats and bin space.
Southwest Airlines is an interesting exception from the bunch. Since 1971, it has been using a variation of the random method—the one that Mythbusters found to be among the fastest but also potentially the most infuriating.
In the airline’s early days, there was absolutely no order to its first-come, first-served boarding process. “Our customers were known to wait for sometimes longer than our then primarily short-haul flights, just to be among the first onboard,” Southwest spokesperson Ro Hawthorne says via email. In the mid-2000s, the airline took a hard look at the free-for-all—and found out that their fliers didn’t like it. What fliers did like, however, was the open seating option. So after having its on-staff swarm theorist model and test a few boarding scenarios, Southwest launched its revised plan in 2007, and it’s still in place. Passengers are now assigned a group at check-in and they board with that group—but beyond that, they still get to choose any seat that’s open.
What’s keeping airlines from changing
There are a few reasons airlines are reluctant to disrupt the conventional process we’ve all come to know and hate.
For starters, certain aspects of the typical group-boarding process make them money. “One thing that gums up the works is the airlines’ practice of selling higher priority boarding through credit cards, subscriptions, and upgraded perks packages,” says Airfarewatchdog cofounder and air-travel-industry expert George Hobica. “And they will always give high-value passengers higher boarding priority even if they are sitting in an aisle seat at the front of the plane.”
Not only does this mean longer waits at the gate for the rest of the passengers, but it also means that the people in those priority groups are going to be causing all kinds of aisle, seat, and luggage interference. “Why do they think that first-class passengers, who block the process of everyone behind them, wish to sit on the plane for longer than necessary?” Hobica says. “They should wait in the lounge until everyone is seated and then board dead last.”
Steffen adds that the sheer volume of different boarding groups prevents efficiency. “[They] play a large role,” he says. “First class, military, families, platinum, gold, silver, bronze, wood, lead paint, etcetera. On many flights, once you finish with all those groups, there are only five or six people left over, so it doesn’t matter what order they board.”
Another impediment can be chalked up to human nature: Innovation requires change, and neither people nor corporate entities do that easily. “In this case, the airlines need to change their boarding procedures and potentially their computer software,” says Milne, the engineer. “Furthermore, the boarding behavior of the passengers needs to change and this needs to be communicated to the passengers. There is a natural resistance of organizations (and individuals) to change. It is easier to keep doing things the ‘old way.’”
Too bad. It seems like a lot of smart people have thought a lot about this process, and we’d be thrilled if the boarding experience could somehow be made to feel less like a food run at a half-empty supermarket on the night before a snowstorm. And as long as we’re asking, could someone figure out how to eliminate all the gate hovering too? We’ll be waiting eagerly to see if anything really changes. Probably in the last group left to board.
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