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Airlines try out new boarding strategies

Groups of passengers wait at a United Airlines gate to board a flight at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in May. For airlines, the perfect boarding process remains elusive. (Associated Press)
Groups of passengers wait at a United Airlines gate to board a flight at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in May. For airlines, the perfect boarding process remains elusive. (Associated Press)

Crowded gates, passengers with carry-ons slow things down

DALLAS – Getting people on and off an airplane quickly is so complicated that even an astrophysicist couldn’t figure it out.

Jason Steffen, a research fellow at Northwestern University, normally contemplates things such as axion-like particles. But after waiting in one boarding line too many, he turned to the mysteries of airline seating.

“I thought there had to be a better way,” he said.

So, after a series of calculations, he deduced that the best system would be a combination of filling all the window seats first, then all the middle ones and then the aisle ones, while also having the passengers board every other row.

There was just one problem – passengers would have to board in precise order. Good luck with that.

“Well,” Steffen observes, “I understand why airline people aren’t calling me.”

But the search for the perfect boarding process goes on.

Most airlines allow first-class and other elite customers to board first. After that, some fill the rear rows first and work toward the front.

Others fill window seats and work in toward the aisle. Some used to employ a hybrid called the reverse-pyramid. Southwest Airlines has random seating: There are no assigned seats – passengers sort things out themselves. They can pay extra to be near the front of the boarding line.

All of this matters more than you might think.

Passengers want to board early to find space in the overhead bins for their rolling carry-on bags. For airlines, every minute that a plane sits at the gate makes it more likely that the flight will be late, hurting the carrier’s on-time rating and causing passengers to miss connecting flights.

There’s an economic cost to running late, too. Researchers from Northern Illinois University say that at one major airline, which they didn’t identify, every extra minute at the gate added $30 in costs.

Boarding methods go back to the dawn of commercial flight, but they’ve gotten more complicated as the airlines have created different classes of passengers and sold the right to board early.

Since 2008, most large airlines have imposed fees for checking a bag, which encourages passengers to carry more on board. At the same time, airlines have reduced flights to control costs, making planes more crowded. The result: Space in the overhead bins has never been more valuable.

In May, American began offering early boarding to passengers with just a personal item that fits under the seat. In a test at several airports, it cut boarding by two minutes per flight, according to Kevin Doeksen, the airline’s director of customer planning. With about 1,900 flights per day on American, that adds up.

Before the 2010 merger of United and Continental airlines, United used the inside-out method of boarding – window seats first, then middle, then aisle – while Continental used the back-to-front method, loading passengers a few rows at a time starting at the rear of the plane. After much testing, the combined airline kept the United approach. Earlier this year, United set up additional boarding lines in the terminals to attack congestion in the gate area.

The back-to-front system, still used by many airlines, seems logical. But some studies have shown that it’s slower than windows-middle-aisle.

“If you’re on the aisle and somebody sitting next to you in the middle seat shows up, you need to unbuckle and maybe get up,” said Ken Bostock, United’s managing director of customer experience. “That can take 20, 25 seconds, and that happens a lot during the boarding process.”

Lou Agudo, a United gate agent who worked at Continental before the merger, said boarding by groups of rows practically invited confusion. Just when he thought everyone in Group 2 – the rear of the plane – had gone through, and he called Group 3 to start, “Twenty people would walk up and say they didn’t hear the announcement.” Some had missed the call for their group while others decided to get in line no matter what, he said. The extra lanes have made his job easier.