Are the Airlines Just Stupid, Shooting Themselves in the Foot With Their Boarding Order Policies?

Vox has a piece claiming that there are $20 bills on the street just waiting for the airlines to pick up, and yet the airlines are just too dumb or too entrenched in their ways to do it.

The canard here is boarding order, that there’s a ‘much better way’ to board planes and stubborn airlines don’t realize it.

But the world isn’t nearly as simple as the piece portrays it, and the studies aren’t nearly as conclusive.

Most US airlines follow the same procedure for allowing non-first-class passengers to board a plane. They let people who are sitting in the back board first, then people in the next few rows, gradually working their way toward the front.

In fact, airlines do not all allow coach passengers to board back-to-front.

First class aside, various airlines allow many others to board first:

  • elite frequent flyers
  • co-brand credit card
  • senior citizens
  • families with small children
  • those needing extra time
  • passengers who have paid for early boarding
  • active duty military members in uniform

On a Monday morning or Thursday or Friday afternoon, this may be a meaningful majority of the passengers.

And then there’s a variety of methods for boarding the rest — back to front, inside out, etc.

The piece suggests that a staggered outside-in model, followed by the Southwest model of no seat assignments is best. It suggests that the current United version of outside-in is next-best followed by random boarding. And that what the article portrays as the standard model is slowest… and suggests that it’s done in the worst possible way because airlines aren’t considering the data. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Southwest does board quickly, an artifact of their early start.. they had 4 planes and financial troubles and tried to keep the same schedule with just 3 aircraft. Of course they mostly boarded by stairs back then, had passengers coming out the back while others boarded from the front (this simulation looks only at a narrowbody plane and assumes using only one boarding door… remember that the US Airways Shuttle at least deplanes from the back as well as front).

Why don’t airlines adopt at least a Southwest model? Because consumers want and value assigned seats. Overhead bin space is scarce as well, and airlines allocate that to their best customers through early boarding. In other words, there are competing business objectives.

It turns out that the data on boarding processes is mixed. You can do simulations of faster boarding but it turns out that

  • What’s fastest changes, you don’t actually get consistent results across airlines and over time
  • There are switching costs, in terms of training agents and disrupting passenger routines

The idea that airlines are leaving value on the table is silly (they’re highly creative in coming up with fees..), they’re constantly evaluating things like boarding order to get on-time arrivals and departures.

They find that the simulation answers aren’t always the best real-world answers, and that they face tradeoffs of competing priorities.

That said, if what you care about is an on-time departure there are many many things that are far greater impediments than boarding order (antiquated air traffic control for instance).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The UA system of 5 lanes is much more orderly than a bunch of gate lice clogging the pathways

    enforcing carry on size is another. i applaud UA for installing the sizing bins everywhere. some claim they’re greedy for cash, but it’s a huge improvement in boarding experience.

  2. Southwest did an extensive study of different boarding methods ending in 2007. They concluded that the time needed to board was similar for assigned vs. open seating. Southwest decided to retain open seating for reasons other than speed.

    Once Southwest started to monetize boarding priority, a new problem surfaced: the occasional cheapskate passenger paying for earlier boarding then saving a large number of desirable seats for his or her entourage. Those people never seem to save multiple rows at the back of the plane. Fortunately this is a relatively rare occurrence. If you see someone saving more than one row in the front half of the plane, please do future passengers a favor by sitting in one of those seats and telling the seat hog that he should have saved seats near the back.

  3. Where are you getting your data saying otherwise / that the article is not necessarily correct?

  4. The efficiency of Southwest’s boarding process is only partly due to the lack of assigned seats. I’d argue that the brilliance of their system lies in the precise assignment of the boarding order. On United, you’re boarded in around eight groups (1-6 + GS + military/more time required). And everybody wants to get to the front of their group.

    But in Southwest, your boarding card says “D26” which means you board before D27 and after D25. This eliminates crowding problems that slow things down are especially unpleasant at smaller United gates.

  5. These intricate boarding plans assume that people will board in the order you expect. Southwest is the closest to this. But on other airlines it is common for group 3 to board with group 1 or 2 (gate agents seem to rarely care). And there are people who are group 1 or 2 who want to board towards the end to decrease time sitting on the plane or they are late getting to the gate.

  6. The biggest variable are the passengers, there experience and, frankly, focus: the fastest I’ve ever seen a plane boarded was Southwest in Orange County. The plane was late coming in and pushing against the curfew at SNA. The agent came on speaker and said: Folks, if you are not on board this plane with doors closed in 10min, you are not going home tonight! With that motivation, people boarded quickly, put away their carry-on without fooling around, and got out of the isle and into their seats! No getting stuff out of carry-ons, kids playing in the isle, trading seats, etc etc The plane pushed back with time to spare to a round of applause from everybody….
    No survey can account for passengers doing their best to be quick – or on the other hand, the number of kids, people needing extra time or, plain inconsiderate people…

  7. Andy T said: “Where are you getting your data saying otherwise / that the article is not necessarily correct?”

    Are you shilling for Vox, perhaps? Only a person totally unfamiliar with this blog would dream of asking such an ignorant question. And only a person who had limited flying experience would write such tripe as: “They let people who are sitting in the back board first, then people in the next few rows, gradually working their way toward the front.”

  8. Best thing I can see would be to do would be assigning overhead bin space (for rolling cases) and sell that at a premium while providing cheap/free checked bags. Extracting more value from the time sensitive customers.

    Also, letting everyone who doesn’t have a bag (or has their bag before the line starts moving disembark before the row by row process of one person getting their bag down begins).

  9. #7, FYD, nailed it. The biggest factor is people themselves. People are stopping to take off their coats and throw them in the overhead, walking up and down the aisles to mess with luggage/friends/etc. while other people are still trying to board.

    The biggest problem that needs solving is when the overhead bins fill up and people have to wander around looking for space. Perhaps assigning carry-on space beforehand? 1 spot per seat? And you can sell back your space if you don’t use it (or just never buy it in the first place).

  10. It is absolutely possible to board much, much more quickly. Subway trains or trains between terminals within airports do it all the time.

    For example, one could enclose each gate, check for boarding passes as you arrive at the gate, and then open multiple doors when the plane is ready to deplane, and again then to depart, without the need to have gate agents review the credentials of each person getting on or off. Most commercial flights have lots of doors but only use one in practice.

    Similarly, one could limit passengers to one personal item and strip overhead bins from the planes (with additional luggage checked or gate checked), since getting luggage into the overhead bins is the cause of much of the time associated with boarding a commercial aircraft.

    A typical passenger spends 30 to 90 minutes each getting to the airport, plus 30 minutes making it through security and getting to the gate, 30 minutes from start of boarding to the passenger leaving the gate, 10 to 15 minutes from the plane leaving the gate to takeoff, plus an hour or three of flight time, plus 10 or 15 minutes from landing to an arrival gate, plus 15 to 20 minutes to get to ground transportation, plus 30 to 90 minutes to get by ground transportation to the final destination. Add 10 minutes up front and 30 minutes at the end of the flight if you have checked bags. On busy days in a large airport, the process of getting through security to the gate is typically where the trip time balloons going from 30 minutes or so on average to more like an hour. Only about half of the trip (or less) is in the air.

    Thus, trimming a few minutes off the customary 30 minutes before leaving the gate that is allocated for boarding and doesn’t vary much by airport load has only a modest impact total trip time, so fixing it isn’t much of a priority. It is like fixing a pinpoint leak in a pipe when the faucet has been left open and running. They overall key is to reduce the number of bottlenecks in the process.

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