Airline loading followup

I’ve written several times before about airplane loading so it’s worth pointing to the article from Wired News on the subject today. Academics have been running a lot of simulations, and favour the reverse pyramid, which is a system that boards the rear-windows first, then the rear-middle and wing-windows, then rear-window, wing-middle and front-window and so on. Other airlines like a “last 5 of rear, first 5 of front, next 5 of rear, next 5 of front and so on” system and there are various others.

I still suspect my system of drawing the boarding order numbers on the carpet and asking passengers to stand in the square with their boarding number (except for children) would speed up any of these systems, because right now, no matter what boarding order they try, people violate it for the simple reason that violating it works. Having passengers enforce — excuse me, you’re standing in my square — would work in a way that having gate agents enforce doesn’t. The story has some nice simulations, and even shows why Southwest’s take-any-seat approach works well. It blocks at first as the first passengers grab the front of plane (as they do on all airlines because frequent flyers get these seats and early boarding) but then distributions the stowing-and-unpacking load, which is a big part of the load. The more you can stop stowing-and-unpacking from blocking people in the aisle, the better. Unloading seems pretty good, in that passengers stream off the plane pretty constantly, and you can’t do much better than that, except of course by having multiple doors, which is used remarkably rarely.

It’s time for a new airline using all sorts of new ideas, including the ones I have written about here, to restore a little speed to the flying experience.

Didn't United try this?

Didn't United try this on their short lived airline Ted? If I remember, it doesn't work very well, if only because many people travel together and take window and center and aisle, and they, quite reasonably, don't want to split up. In fact, you don't want to split up parents and children.

Then, you have the elite passenger problem, where frequent fliers, who can't always afford first class, board early to grab their seats and precious overhead baggage space, and they block the aisles.

All these ideas are clever, but they don't work very well.

Best field experience

The fastest demonstrated systems are those used by Southwest and railroads.

Southwest: No assigned seats. People self manage the boarding and seat assignment process as it happens. This was mentioned in passing in the Wired article. It still leads the alternatives by a large margin.

Amtrak Acela: No assigned seats, lots of doors, no need for seat belts, etc. This loads and unloads even faster. The equivalent of a full 727 loads in a few minutes at stations like NYC Penn. The limiting factor is clearing people through the ticket checking process, not getting them into seats.

TGV, Thalys: Assigned seats, lots of doors, no need for seat belts etc. This is slower than Amtrak, but does not delay the train schedule. They restrict access to the train platform so that they can check tickets in advance and send people to stand at the right place for the right door for their car on the train. Then two doors per car lets the train load as fast as Amtrak. You do spend more time standing around in the aisle on the train dealing with getting to the proper seat if the train is full. But the train can be moving.

The reality is that the major delay factor is the assigned seat. If you remove the assigned seat, the self managed seating is much faster than any of the assigned seat alternatives. As an extensive traveler I've found that I prefer faster through the system over assigned seating.

Southwest Effectively Wastes Most Passengers' Time

I've travelled quite a bit via Southwest, and I've never found its boarding process to have wasted my time. However, it seems to waste the time of the 85% of passengers who begin lining up in one of the three corrals about an hour before flight time. My favorite maneuver is to arrive at the gate 15 minutes before flight time and enter through the "A" corral just as it is emptying, while all the schmoes in "B" and "C" who have been there an hour stand there. Of course it is a _bit_ inconvenient to be online with printer access exactly 24 hours before flight time to get an "A" ticket, but the bargain turns out to be worth it.

The word I use is "corral" because the preflight behavior of Southwest passengers is best described as bovine. "They treat us like cattle, so we act like cattle": nervous, suspicious, obtuse, exposed, perched on a psychological precipe between stolidity and mania, and obsessed with one's relation to the group and to the boundary. Efficiency and my own coping mechanisms aside, I'd rather travel on an airline without such dehumanizing operating procedures.

One such airline is JetBlue, which not only puts the best (i.e. most legroom) seats in the back, but in its Long Beach hub actually loads from both ends of the plane. It's worth the inconvenient drive down to Long Beach to travel the remainder of the journey with such civility. Civility requires assigned seats, it seems to me.

I think much of the problem with airplane loading, which doesn't obtain in train loading, is that the front seats are perceived as being so much "better" than the back. As JetBlue's example shows, airlines could do something about this. On the other hand, there's probably nothing to be done about the suckage of the middle seat.

Load from the back

Yes, I remain amazed they don’t load from the back or other sides more often, as well as unload. As I have written in other places, we have this idea that a good airport is one with raised waiting rooms and enclosed jetways. Now I have to admit in certain climates the argument is stronger, but I blanch at the fact that San Jose is going to tear down its great, fast terminal C which uses roll-up stairways (ideal for this climate) for a “modern” very expensive, slow jetway terminal.

Admittedly even San Jose doesn’t use multiple stairs all that often, though they sometimes do. One reason I guess they shy away is the have to do extra safety stuff if passengers are going to be going past the engines and luggage to the back. I like how Hawai`ian airlines uses those older jets with the automatic stairs at the back built into the plane, except it doesn’t always lower those stairs at the jetway gates in Honalulu.

Southwest used to suck until they added print at home boarding pass so they didn’t punish me with a middle seat for arriving at a decently short interval before the flight. Of course home printed passes are a horrible security hole and thus will probably eventually be lost.

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