Improving on United’s New Boarding Procedure

Tyler Cowen wonders if, instead of United’s new plan involving boarding passengers assigned to window seats first, airlines would save more time charging for carryons (making passengers internalize the costs of lengthy boarding processes) or awarding prizes based on how quickly passengers get into their seats and buckle up.

The latter idea, while novel, would undoubtedly entail pretty substantial technological costs to retrofit aircraft appropriately. How else to know how long each passenger takes from boarding to buckling? And it would probably involve taking aircraft out of service for a time to do the retrofit, not to mention lengthy FAA approvals for the aircraft modificiations. So I’d guess that costs would be way too high relative to any savings from quicker boarding times.

Besides, as passengers compete with each other for quicker boarding, aren’t there bad incentives to trip each other or push to get to ones seat?

I’m skeptical that United will see any real benefit from its revised boarding procedure.

Southwest used to offload passengers from the rear exit of the plane while boarding passengers from the front. Flight attendants did a basic cleanup of the plane while on approach for landing. Heavier cleaning was done overnight but I don’t believe there was a separate cleaning crew boarding the planes in between flights.

In their early years, suffering financial problems, Southwest returned their 4th 737 and operated the same schedule with just 3 planes — pushing their turnaround time down from 20 minutes to 10 minutes (!) made this possible.

The point of short aircraft turnaround times was higher aircraft utilization — keep the planes flying, amortize the significant fixed cost of the airplane asset over more passengers, and in Southwest’s case even reduce the outlay for aircraft. That’s real savings.

It’s not clear to me what reducing boarding times a few minutes per flight gets you unless that allows you to actually squeeze out extra flights from your planes. Perhaps I haven’t read enough on United’s plans, but I don’t see them doing this.

I should look more closely at the company’s regulatory filings, perhaps they think they’re going to save a few minutes of time from each of their pilots and flight attendants? If so it seems like they’re leaving quite a bit on the table, keeping aircraft on the ground for an hour or more between flights and squeezing a few minutes off the actual boarding time. Perhaps a little less cleaning between flights, reduce your costs of having a whole staff of cleaners working throughout the day at major airports, and keep the planes in the air?

Several United Express carriers do just that. When I flew from Pasco, Washington to Denver the plane had no toilet paper! They don’t do any cleaning or supplying in Pasco, and didn’t have time to do any at their Denver hub before departing for Pasco since they were late coming in from Fargo. They got one cleaning and batch of TP before leaving Denver first thing in the morning, and hopefully got some more rolls after we landed again in Denver in the late afternoon!

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »