MIAMI — For one reason or another it’s been a mildly hot topic lately on just how unpleasant the process of boarding an airplane is. Much of the talk revolves around how, despite the technologically advanced age we live in, we cannot seem to come up with a better process.

An article on recently recapped the most popular boarding procedures, pointing out that the fastest known procedure is not in fact used. The author boils down the reasons why folks continue to wait in lines on the jet bridge to a matter of profit:

 “One possible answer is that the current system actually makes them more [money] than they’d save by switching…Airlines often allow some passengers to pay extra to board early and skip the general unpleasantness. If the entire boarding process was faster to begin with, many people might not pay extra to skip it.”

There are two problems with the above statement. First, the key incentive for early boarding is not primarily to avoid the indignity of standing in a line, but rather to receive first dibs at overhead space for carry-on bags. Ever since the introduction of checked bag fees the space has become an increasingly hot commodity. Airlines have been quick to cash in on that, rewarding its frequent fliers with early access or offering one-time upgrades, for a small fee, to the head of the boarding line for ‘normal’ folk.

Unsurprisingly, at least with legacy carriers, the majority of the people that board early tend to be either purchasing a premium economy product like United’s economy plus, or are elite frequent flyers on the airline; the single most important customer group. In the case of business travelers, that incentive is particularly acute, as having to wait to retrieve your bag is a huge productivity killer. These passengers in particular are the most profitable for airlines, and thus this incentive is extremely important. The guarantee of being able to place your roll-on right above your seat is of course a driver behind the perceived value of premium economy tickets, and even business and first class tickets. Thus, it is too simple to say passengers pay for early boarding merely to avoid standing in line. No, the main reason is to pick up first choice of space in the first-come, first-serve overhead jungle.

Boarding a DC-10. (Credits: Chris Sloan)
Boarding a DC-10. (Credits: Chris Sloan)

The second problem is this assumption that we can go faster, somehow, in the boarding process and thus eliminate the monetization of the line. The current darling is the Steffen system, which would board right side window-seats in numerical order back to front, then left side window seats back to front, and so on until the airplane is full. It touts 71% time savings over the current systems, which range from window/middle/aisle to back to front, zones to free-for-all.

While it has been shown to be theoretically faster, we’re skeptical that such a system is practical in the wild. The why comes down to one variable: families. For obvious reasons, you have to board families (think about a three year old girl in the middle seat next to her mom walking down the aisle by herself two groups later) first, or at least together. The number of such passengers per flight, per day is likely to vary heavily, with perhaps two passengers one day and twenty-two the next fitting the bill. This clearly throws a wrench into the time savings of the Steffens plan, which depends on consistency. Include boarding preferences for disabled passengers (required by law), and for uniformed military personnel (a popular pre-boarding group that, like families, varies), and all of a sudden, the perceived time benefits collapse.

For the airline, the major benefit of reducing boarding times (and the only way it would increase profits) would be if airlines could use it to increase fleet utilization (driving down fixed costs per unit of capacity) and schedule their aircraft more tightly. Let’s give Steffen the benefit of the doubt, and assume that his boarding process works 80% of the time (driving a ~50% reduction in boarding time), leaving the rest to be the same as it is now, or longer. How exactly is an airline supposed to predict which 20% of the flights will run late?

Let’s extrapolate further and say we have a 150 seat aircraft that operates five flights per day during the summer. Under the Steffen plan, let’s assume that cutting boarding time allows for about 15 minutes of savings per flight in terms of how the aircraft are scheduled, which over the course of a day, yields enough time for one additional 75 minute flight. The problem is that in the 35 flights that the aircraft operates during the week, seven of them will be delayed by 15 minutes (just due to boarding). If you’re talking about an airline with 85% on-time performance normally, then all of a sudden, you’re pushing total on time performance down into the 60-70% range overall (mix of boarding and normal effects), which drives its own costs on airlines and would likely outweigh the benefits.

Admittedly, some of this is worst case scenario, but if airlines can’t effectively capture the time savings from a faster system there isn’t much motivation to change it up. Thus the way that we board passengers currently, given the real-world constraints airlines operate under, is about as good as it can get.