Humans have split the atom. They've connected 3 billion people on one internet. They've perfected the smartphone and then built blenders powerful enough to turn them into dust. So why, Why, WHY have we not yet figured out how to get onto a plane efficiently?
It's not just your imagination: Boarding a commercial flight is unnecessarily fraught, and is only getting worse in the era when people max out their carry-ons rather than pay to check luggage. According to Boeing, plane boarding times were around 15 minutes in the 1970s, compared to 30 to 40 minutes today. And it's not as if planes were flying empty back then.
Expedited boarding is the rare goal shared by passengers and airlines alike, as every minute that plane sits on the ground costs the airline about $1,000. So why is everything slower today? And can we possibly fix this ritualized frustration?
Why it's so slow
Most airlines board the plane from the rear to the front, which in theory should work well. But people aren't exactly boarding in perfect seat order, and when the entire line has to stop every time an old lady can't hoist a 35lb bag into an overhead bin, things slow down considerably.
But it's not like people could magically move through each other in the '70s, so why is it slower now? Baggage fees, for one. Fewer people checking bags means a lot more giant carry-ons, meaning a lot more people clogging up the aisles trying to put them away. It's not the only culprit, but it's a big one.
Spirit, of all airlines, has actually found a handy (if onerous) solution to this: charge for carry-on bags, too. (It charges more, in fact, than it charges for checked bags. And if you have to check a bag at the gate, you can get hit with a $100 fee.) Naturally people become more likely to suck it up and check their bags. The airline claims to board about five minutes faster than its competitors.
The Southwest solution
Southwest seems to have figured out at least part of the problem. Its famous open-seating process -- whereby passengers split into three groups, line up numerically, and choose any open seat -- is significantly faster than the back-to-front method. Theoretically this would create a mad dash for seats and an even greater clusterfuck, but it turns out to work smoother than you'd think.
People sit down faster as they board a Southwest plane, and the line moves quicker. Think about it: If you know you prefer an aisle seat, chances are you'll take the first one you find. You stow your bag and get out of the way. If you have a big carry-on, you're more likely to take the seat near some open bin space, rather than look for open space THEN go to your seat.
But is it really the open seating that makes Southwest faster? It could just be Southwest is the last major airline that doesn't charge for bags, meaning, at least in theory, that fewer people are carrying on their suitcases. So everyone gets aboard faster.
Are there methods we haven't tried yet?
The Outside-In Method: MythBusters, among others, has promoted the outward-in method of boarding, in which passengers with window seats board the plane first, then those in middle seats, and so forth. In trials, the TV show demonstrated it to be the fastest method. But since United Airlines adopted the MythBusters method, it hasn’t seen significant improvements. Likely because people are still stuck behind passengers stowing overhead bags.
The Steffen Method: In 2014, an astrophysicist named Jason Steffen developed what's generally considered the most efficient model of boarding, tested to be twice as fast as back-to-front, and 20-30% faster than open seating or outside-in. His model has passengers in every other row board from the outside in, starting from the back. In a 30-row plane, for example, passengers with window seats in row 30 would board first, then windows in 28, and so forth in blocks. Steffen's method creates enough of a buffer between rows that nobody ever has to stop. One drawback: It doesn't allow for couples or families to board together. And until that utopia known as the child-free airline launches, this method will probably never be employed in its ideal form.
And the We Gotta Try Something methods: Other proposed methods involve boarding passengers based on how much carry-on luggage they have, from greatest to least, with strictly assigned overhead spaces. Sheer random boarding has also been shown to be more efficient than what we do now: people boarding whenever they want, regardless of seat. Alaska Airlines tried this for a time about 15 years ago but didn't stick to it.
So what can we do?
Yes, there are methods that work better than what we have now. But you're not a method -- you're just a person who hates lines. The best thing you can do is carry on nothing at all, perhaps by checking your damn bag. Gate agents and flight attendants can also help the process by stopping passengers at the boarding door who have oversized bags and forcing them to be gate-checked. Some do, while others enforce size rules with about as much enthusiasm as a Caribbean traffic cop. But like car traffic, functional rules can free up a lot of space. Airlines could also adopt open-seating policies and charge premiums for early boarding to make up the fees. But that idea doesn't seem to have caught on.
Perhaps someday the airlines will make the process more efficient, either by limiting carry-on bags or following a more efficient method. For now, shuffle along, fair traveler. Maybe you can make a new friend on the boarding line.
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