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Rethink boarding airplanes

I don’t travel on airplanes often. For me this is a good thing. The airport routines of parking, security checkpoints, boarding, and rental cars typically leave me feeling like herded cattle. For the most part, all the players involved in each of these steps do a good job moving masses of people onto the next station. But this past week I was reminded about one of the peculiarities of air travel that makes me ask wonder why doesn’t someone change this.

The airplane boarding process

My experience:

  • About 20 minutes prior to the first call passengers start forming a mass of people near the gate to board the plane.
  • First call is for those needing extra assistance or time to board.
  • Second call is for families traveling with small children.
  • Third call is for the premium cabin ticketed passengers.
  • Fourth call is for priority status members.
  • Fifth call and subsequent is for zone boarding.

Here’s how all the major carriers approach boarding an airplane. There is no consistent method.

The result is a long line on the jet way that extends into the main cabin. The line constantly stops when the lead person puts their carry-on into the overhead storage. Then the flight crew usually comes on the overhead and starts fussing at the passengers that in order to make an on-time departure they need passengers to sit in their seats.

“It’s really a chaotic random mess where you don’t get the same results twice. Airline employees shouldn’t be griping at passengers about boarding when they use a process setup to achieve random results.”

There has to be a better way.

Ask why.

I started asking myself why is it this way and why do the airlines let the process exist like this.

Now remember, I don’t travel frequently. But this is what I observe:

  1. There is not enough overhead storage space to fit all the carry-on luggage/personal bags. Passengers are incented to want to board the plane first to get overhead storage.
  2. Many carriers are not charging additional fees to check luggage which makes more passengers carry bags for boarding.
  3. The carriers want to reward loyal passengers and those paying the highest fares with perks so they create priority boarding zones.

I’m just sayin’.

I believe the root cause for all this is the lack of overhead storage.

“What if every seat had an assigned cubby for storing carry-on baggage?”

Imagine if every passenger is guaranteed a spot for their extra personal item. This accomplishes several things:

  1. Carriers could use a process where the plan is boarded from the back to the front. This would minimize the delay caused by passengers stopping in the aisle to store their bags while others who are sitting behind them wait.
  2. Passengers would know exactly where their baggage is to be placed instead of randomly choosing a location. That will speed the process of baggage storage.
  3. It would alleviate the need for passengers to congregate at the boarding counter in an attempt to get on the plane ‘first’ because they know they have a guaranteed spot for their luggage.
  4. Quicker boarding times would increase on-time departures.

Certainly there would still be exceptions. Passengers needing extra time to board (handicap, elderly, families with small children, etc.)

You say it’s not possible.

That’s not possible. There isn’t enough space on the plane to do this. The carriers need to maximize the number of seats to maximize revenue per flight. There is considerable investment in existing fleets that don’t have this.

Engineers can solve this problem. We put a man on the moon and you’re telling me we can’t figure out how to create storage for every seat on an airplane? Sure there would be some trade-offs. Maybe it means losing a couple of rows of seats. Maybe it means finding ways to store luggage in addition to overhead bins. Maybe it means enforcing the maximum size of carry-on luggage. It is possible.

Air travel carriers would have to decide it is important and then work with equipment manufactures to make the investment to change.  The opportunity is there for someone.

Onward and upward!