Aug. 1, 2013 at 11:11 AM ET
Getting people on and off an airplane quickly is so complicated that even an astrophysicist couldn't figure it out.
Jason Steffen, a research fellow at Northwestern University, normally contemplates things such as axion-like particles. But after waiting in one boarding line too many, he turned to the mysteries of airline seating.
"I thought there had to be a better way," he says.
So, after a series of calculations, he deduced that the best system would be a combination of filling all the window seats first, then all the middle ones and then the aisle ones, while also having the passengers board every other row.
There was just one problem — passengers would have to board in precise order. Good luck with that. These are the same passengers who don't turn off their phones even after they're told it's a federal law.
"Well," Steffen observes, "I understand why airline people aren't calling me."
But the search for the perfect boarding process goes on.
In recent weeks, United and American — the nation's biggest and third-biggest carriers — have rolled out new strategies for faster boarding.
— American is letting passengers board sooner if they don't put anything in the overhead bins. The idea is to get more people seated quickly before passengers with rolling bags clog the aisle.
— United reduced the number of boarding groups from seven to five while adding lanes in gate areas — from two to five at big airports. That's designed to eliminate "gate lice" — the name road warriors use for those anxious passengers with big carry-ons who cause a traffic jam by creeping forward long before their group is called.
American and United tested their new procedures in a handful of airports before rolling them out across the country in time for the peak summer travel season. United CEO Jeff Smisek says his airline's new method has helped cut departure delays related to boarding by more than 60 percent.
The back-to-front system, still used by many airlines, seems logical. But some studies have shown that it's slower than windows-middle-aisle.
"If you're on the aisle and somebody sitting next to you in the middle seat shows up, you need to unbuckle and maybe get up," says Ken Bostock, United's managing director of customer experience. "That can take 20, 25 seconds, and that happens a lot during the boarding process."
Lou Agudo, a United gate agent who worked at Continental before the merger, says boarding by groups of rows practically invited confusion. Just when he thought everyone in Group 2 — the rear of the plane — had gone through, and he called Group 3 to start, "Twenty people would walk up and say they didn't hear the announcement." Some had missed the call for their group, while others decided to get in line no matter what, he says. The extra lanes have made his job easier.
Anything to tidy up the gate area will help, in the view of Yosief Ghirmai, an auditor for defense contractor Raytheon Co. in Frisco, Texas, who says foreign airlines make boarding much easier for elite-level frequent fliers like himself.
"The international airlines respect the priority boarding system," Ghirmai says, citing Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific as an example. "Here, you have to fight to get to the priority boarding line — all the bags, all the kids. The concept (in the U.S.) is the same, but the execution is much better over there."
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