There is an art to boarding a plane efficiently, but that's not always best for business!
Frustrated by how long it takes to board a plane? Don’t blame airlines. Research is clear about how to speed up the boarding process, and airlines could implement new procedures to save time. Passengers probably wouldn't like the changes, however, so most airlines stick with what they have.
Consider the most obvious source of boarding delays: overhead bins. "Putting your bags up is more of the problem than taking your seat," says Hani Mahmassani, director of Northwestern University's Transportation Center. Remove half the carry-ons—the easiest fix would be to charge for them—and everyone would get into their seats faster. Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant charge for overhead space, and while customers see it as a cash grab, it speeds up the boarding process.
Early boarding is another problem. Many airlines use systems that should be speedy, but before they start with their scientifically-proven approaches, they invite top customers aboard. Since frequent fliers often sit in the first rows of coach, they can slow everyone seated behind them. But airlines don't want to stop early boarding because passengers like it. “Our top-tier customers spend a lot of money to support our business,” says American Airline's Tim McMahan.
In a perfect world, how would airlines get passengers onboard faster? Mahmassani recommends a two-pronged approach. First, airlines should board from the back and move forward, but instead of calling each row, they should skip one row each time, so fewer passengers compete for overhead bin space. Second, he says, airlines should call window seats first, then middles, then aisles. "You want to load from the back-to-front, outside to the inside," he says.
That might be too complicated to implement, so Mahmassani suggests completely random boarding—a free-for-all similar to Southwest's approach. And the slowest system? It's likely back-to-front, since it concentrates boarding passengers in one area, with many travelers fighting over the same bins.
11 airlines were asked about their strategies. Most permit top customers to board early, but each has a system for other travelers. Here's what they do.
American: American uses an algorithm to assign zones, and while representatives won't say exactly what the system looks for, its goal is to ensure as many passengers can sit and stow bags simultaneously as possible. "It's more complex than I can even recite," says American's McMahan.
Virgin Atlantic: It tested many schemes, but decided boarding everyone at once works best. "We worked with the airport teams to look at what our customers really want—the ability to walk straight onboard, when they’re ready," says Mark Croucher of Virgin Atlantic's customer experience team.
Southwest: Southwest boards in order of check-in time. But because it does not pre-assign seats, it is essentially a free-for-all, with passengers taking seats in various places all at once. Southwest once tested assigned seats, but it was a flop. ”Our most frequent customers understand the process and like it," a spokeswoman says.
JetBlue: JetBlue boards from the back, five rows at a time. An airline spokesman acknowledges this may not be the fastest approach, but says passengers like the “structure and predictability” of it.
Air China, Korean Air, Japan Airlines, Eva Air: Back-to-front remains popular in Asia, though it does not necessarily slow boarding. Asian carriers fly more wide-body aircraft than U.S. airlines, and because these planes have two aisles, they board faster. Korean Air says 400 passengers can board an Airbus A380 in 20-25 minutes.
United: Window seats board first, followed by middles and aisles—an approach called WILMA. “It helps people sit and stow their luggage quicker than other options," a spokesman says.
Delta: Coach passengers with higher-priced tickets board first, followed by customers on cheaper fares.
Lufthansa: The German carrier has no official system, but often boards either by rows, or all at once. Interestingly, the airline also relies on local culture to determine what works best. "There are situations where the people of a certain country are more used to random boarding and prefer it to row boarding," a spokesman says. Lufthansa admits faster methods exist, but says they're "lacking when it comes to practical implementation."