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.


Blogger Abhishek said...

I came to your blog randomly and fyi, they did in fact did modeling study on airplane loading times. which will be more important as the A380 and other bigger planes arrive. They found that Rear to Front is not the fastest method, but rather having the passengers borad in random sequence was in fact the best.


5/05/2006 9:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It really is a question of privilege. The executive and business classes are located in the front. It wouldnt look nice if they start from the rear after the executives and businessmen have gotten seated in the front first.
Now you might wonder why sitting in the front is a privilege. Reason: The plane leaves only after the last passenger arrives be it an executive or economy class guy. Therefore boardingwise there is no privilege for exectives. However while exitting, it is always from front to back, so executives always get out of the plane earlier than the rear enders. Assuming completely random arrivals at the airport for boarding, the expected time inside the plane is the lowest for executives and businessmen - a privilege indeed.
Now one might wonder: why do exectives have to be seated first even if their seats are in the front? Reason: As you mentioned in your entry, it would be better if an economy class guy had luggage problem with the rack, than an exective class guy (who paid more for the same flight).

5/05/2006 10:23 PM  
Anonymous Mor said...

I think we were at Newark at the same time (wierd - I met 2 people I know at EWR, you would have been the third).

I jumped on the Continental flight, where they load passenger starting from the back. Now, this had a different consequence: the heavy carry -ons filled out the plane's overheads such that late-coming first-rows passengers had to wonder up and down the plane looking for somewhere to stow their (really belly-of-the-plane-sized) luggage.

Solution: nothing to do with loading strategies. Airlines should be tougher on overhead luggage size on the EWR-SFO route.

5/06/2006 10:24 AM  
Anonymous Cpr said...

Some thoughts:
1. Boarding first clearly IS a privilege. This is because those who board first aren't forced to and do so willingly. If it is in fact such a bad idea, when Seating area 1 is called, those entitled could just stand back and wait till seating area 4 is finally called and saunter in after the crowd. In my flying experience, I've never seen that happen (or wanted to try it myself).
2. No boarding rule will help the "last passenger" as long as there is less overhead space available than required. Therefore, there's no reason to change who that last passenger is likely to be. In fact, I think it's quite fair right now: It's the person with the last booking+least loyalty or the last to arrive.
Closing bins can help in the early discovery of space unavailability which can trigger earlier gate checkins helping an overall departure time improvement.
3. I think Rear-first boarding doesn't improve things significantly congestion-wise. People coming late will always travel against the flow. They'll excuse themselves across many people loading up their respective overhead bins, get to their row, analogously find it full, make their way back up front...
4. Rear-boarding can also prove to make the folks in the rear seats the first to get off! If the rear seated pax decided to load the bins front-to-back, they could get to leave the plane first ;) !

6/05/2006 11:48 AM  

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