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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!

Delta Airlines apology letter for flight delay

I experienced a flight delay on February 21, 2011 flying on Delta Airlines from Atlanta to Chicago. The delay was the results of two events:

1. An equipment problem. It was announced as a fuel leak.

2. Weather conditions in the Chicago and the Mid West created flight delays and cancellations across the country.

I believe the total delay was around three hours. All things considered I didn’t think it was too bad. No one was upset to change planes when they heard about the equipment problem and the weather delay was both expected and understandable.

Four days later I received this letter via email:

Please Accept Our Apology
Dear Mr. Williams,

On behalf of Delta Air Lines, I would like to extend my personal apology for the inconvenience you experienced as a result of the delay of Flight DL1412 on February 21, 2011.

In light of the current state of the economy, and in today’s competitive airline industry, travelers expect the best value for their travel dollar. Delta strives to provide this value through a mix of safety, on-time performance, courteous and professional service, and a wide range of destination options. We want to make travel on us a convenient and trouble-free experience for our passengers and I am truly sorry we failed to do so on this occasion.

To demonstrate our commitment to service excellence and as a gesture of apology for our service failure, I am adding 1,000 bonus miles to your SkyMiles account xxxxxxxxxx. These bonus miles and those earned on flights and through hundreds of partners can be used toward award travel on Delta, our 25 partner airlines, and at SkyMiles Marketplace, a new program where you can redeem miles for car rentals, hotel stays, merchandise, and more. Please visit us at www.delta.com/skymiles to verify your mileage balance and to gain access to all of our mileage redemption programs.

It is our goal to provide exceptional service on every occasion, and I hope you will provide us with an opportunity to restore your confidence. Your support is important to Delta, our Connection carriers and our SkyTeam partners. We look forward to your continued patronage and the privilege of serving your air travel needs again soon.


Toby Broberg
Director, Customer Care


Now, I do understand that the airline industry is a consumer favorite for complaints regarding poor customer service. I’ll also admit that I have had a few bad experiences with Delta Airlines over the years.  But I’ll say this. They didn’t have to send this letter of apology and they didn’t have to credit my account with 1,000 miles. I accept their apology and appreciate that a large corporate entity would go to such lengths to send this to individual customers. It’s a nice touch and a good customer focus process. None of use are perfect and it’s nice to see when someone is big enough to send a letter of apology.