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).