Friday, May 05, 2006

Airplane Boarding Woes

I was taking the flight formerly known as Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco last week, when I had the opportunity to encounter an extreme example of the silliness that passes for boarding policy. Here is the chain reaction of events as I saw them unfold:
  1. Gate invites passengers in "Seating Area 1" -- corresponding to the Economy Plus seats in the front of the aircraft -- to board.
  2. Small set of Seating Area 1 passengers with many, huge carry-on bags rush to be first to board (having stood in line for multiple minutes to obtain the privilege).
  3. Some passengers not in Seating Area 1 but with lots of baggage also squeeze through in the melee.
  4. The less antsy Seating Area 1 passengers trail the above and enter the aircraft, only to find that the rack space above their seats is already taken.
  5. Undeterred, these passengers march further down until they do find an open space for the carry-on bag.
  6. As they wend their way forward to their seats, they encounter a stream of passengers attempting to get to their seats in the rear of the aircraft.
  7. New batch of passengers find their own rack space occupied by the luggage of the people described in (4), forcing them to adopt the strategy described in (5).
  8. Having learnt from the mistakes of (6), these passengers are nice enough to close a rack once they realize it is full, in the hope of saving those arriving later from having to make the effort to find out.
  9. The next batch of passengers arrive and the results are surprisingly similar to (6), only worse as the subtleties of buffer space makes the congestion worse.
  10. This batch encounters closed racks above their seats and, since this makes little sense to them, proceed to open them and try squeezing their bags in. Needless to say, they have little success.
  11. Repeat, ad infinitum.
  12. Throw in the occasional late-arriving poor soul with a seat up front. He makes his way all the way to the rear of the aircraft in the hope of finding an open space, fails to find one and works his way forward frustrated. The manoeuvre lasts 15 minutes.
  13. Plane leaves the gate 20 minutes after scheduled departure.

Here is the question that crossed my mind then, as they had many times before with lesser vehemence: Why wouldn't you start boarding the plane from rear to front instead of the other way round? Choices:
  1. No, that's too easy. We don't want a scheme where passengers actually don't get in each other's way.
  2. No, we need to perpetuate the illusion that boarding first is a privilege. How will we have long meaningless queues to board otherwise?
    • Never mind that the plane won't take off until the last passenger is aboard.
    • Or that stretching your legs in the airport lounge is much superior to cramping them in an airplane seat for any longer than necessary.
    • Or that arriving late at the airport would be a much better privilege.
    • Is there an example of any other event which creates queues, even though seating is reserved and the event won't begin until everyone makes their way in? I don't know one.
  3. No, if passengers board from rear to front that means there is no chain reaction when we run out of overhead rack space. What's the fun in that?
On a more serious note, one potential flaw with the rear-to-front scheme is that people with seats in front get the worst deal in terms of likely space available for their baggage. It's not necessarily a bad deal since they receive shorter entry/exit times in the bargain. Of course, it's always easy to fix even that negative by just reserving the overhead space to go with the corresponding seats/seating class.