All aboard

by Russ Roberts on November 2, 2005

in Travel

I’ve often wondered why Southwest boards people randomly in groups—first come, first serve—rather than boarding people in the rear first, which would seem to cause less congestion.  Now comes two (!) articles in today’s WSJ (sr), here and here, looking at the issue of the quickest way to herd people onto a plane.

The first article confirms the importance of boarding speed in airline profitability:

Boarding time is one of several variables affecting how quickly
airlines can turn their planes around and get them back in the sky.
Others include luggage loading and refueling. Every extra minute the
plane sits on the ground means lost revenue. "It can add up to tens of
millions of dollars," says Andrew Miller, chief executive of the Centre
for Asia Pacific Aviation, an aviation consultancy based in Sydney.

I’ve always assumed that Southwest gave up this savings and in return, saved money on keeping track of which people are in which seat.  And they get to reuse those plastic boarding passes, saving on printing costs.  But this explanation always made me uneasy–could keeping track of the seat assignment be that expensive?  And people dislike getting in the lines–that’s foregone revenue they could recoup with a better strategy.  Now comes evidence that boarding randomly isn’t necessarily quicker than boarding the passengers at the back of the plane first:

Boarding from the rear to the front, still standard practice at many
American airlines, is almost certainly not the fastest way, these
scientists say. Among the faster methods may be letting everyone board
randomly or calling out each individual seat number.

The other problem, discussed in the second article, is that the airline people don’t always enforce the rules, a maddening result for those of us in "Group 5" who patiently wait while other Group Fivers cut in front of us.  The same problem occurs with the assigned seat strategy:

One of our biggest problems in general was enforcement of the rules,
rather than the rules themselves. On many airlines, the gate agents
didn’t turn back passengers trying to board out of turn. Some carriers
didn’t enforce the limits on the number of carry-on bags, which led to
traffic jams. On a full Southwest flight, we counted several people
with more than two bags, and the line of people waiting to sit stopped
at least 21 times.

It’s an interesting cultural challenge.  How do you get people to follow the rules, and probably more importantly, move into the seats and out of the aisle quickly without dawdling.  Maybe a cattle prod with a long handle would do the trick.  Announcing the importance of moving quickly seems to have little or no impact.

I still think the airline industry should talk to Temple Grandin.

The underlying issue is really the invention of the rolling suitcase that reduced the hassle of carrying on your baggage, eliminating the suddenly larger hassle of checking bags and the uncertainty of when you would see them next.  I’ve always been surprised that planes have not been redesigned to allow more space for carry-ons.  Some new planes do have deeper overhead bins that allow rollers to go end-in rather than along their side, which makes room for more bags.

The time it takes for passengers to board has more than doubled since
1970, according to studies by Boeing Co. One study in the mid-1960s
found that 20 passengers boarded the plane per minute. Today that
figure is down to nine per minute, as passengers bring along heftier
carry-on luggage. Both Boeing and Airbus, the two top
commercial-aircraft makers, are working on improving boarding time as a
selling point to airlines.

If you fly Southwest and hate arriving early to get in an early group, both articles discuss a $5 way to rest easier.

Here’s an alternative explanation of the benefits of Southwest’s strategy.  I’m not convinced but it’s creative and could be right.


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