FORT WORTH, Texas – In a quest to speed up the boarding process, American Airlines is letting passengers board sooner if they travel lightly.
The airline said Thursday that people carrying just a personal item that fits under the seat – no rolling suitcases – will be allowed to board before most other passengers.
American said that the change will allow flights to take off sooner, helping the airline improve its on-time performance.
Airline officials say boarding times have increased in the last few years. The airlines have created this problem by cutting back flights, which makes planes more crowded, and also charging fees for checking baggage, which encourages passengers to haul their luggage on board.
The result can be sharp-elbowed competition for scarce bin space that leads to short tempers among passengers and flight attendants.
American tested the new boarding procedure at seven airports earlier this year and began applying it to all flights Thursday. Passengers carrying just a personal item such as a purse, backpack or computer bag that fits under the seat will board right after Group 1 premium passengers and before groups 2, 3 and 4.
The airline said 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.
If it works as designed, light travelers will be seated quickly. Fewer people will be stuck behind the inevitable guy who takes too long to hoist his rolling bag into an overhead bin and position it to his liking.
Kevin Doeksen, director of customer planning for American, said the change will cut boarding time by about two minutes per flight, “which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up throughout the day.”
If the change results in fewer big bags being rolled on the plane, it could reduce the number of flights on which the overhead bins fill up. When the bins are stuffed, gate agents or flight attendants must ask passengers in the last boarding group to surrender their bag for gate-checking – an awkward situation all around.
Competition for bin space has also made travel more stressful. Passengers in the last boarding groups often creep forward and jockey for position to be the first in their group on the plane.
“They’re anxious because they’ve got a big roll-aboard (bag with wheels) and they’re worried about having no space in the bin,” Doeksen said.
Travel experts think American’s idea can speed up boarding if enough passengers leave their rolling bags behind.