22 September 2006

Airplane Boarding Procedure

How many times have you gotten stuck in the aisle or the jetway while waiting to board a plane, thinking "there must be a better way to do this"? Sometime in the last few years, I was traveling an airline that was participating in an experiment to test a boarding procedure called Wilma (boarding Window first, then Middle, then Aisle). I don't remember feeling that the boarding process went any more smoothly than usual, but I was relieved to think that someone was putting some thought into these things.

Turns out, people have put lots of thought into this very issue. I found an article that analyzes current boarding procedures using Lorentzian geometry and computer simulations. I didn't dedicate a lot of energy to understanding all the math, but I do remember that Lorentz is typically associated with chaos theory, and the general theme of chaos theory is that some systems have too many variables and are too dynamic to be predicted, let alone tamed.

So it seems with airplane boarding. Even if the back-to-front system were perfectly implemented so people were ordered by individual row, rather than by sections of rows, people would still be waiting in the aisles. This is because the rows are spaced closer together than one row's worth of passengers - row 38 can't board quickly because row 39 passengers block row 38, and they are standing in the aisle while row 40 is boarding.

One of the factors which delay boarding is that people who are seated in aisle seats get up and block the aisle to allow window and middle seat passengers to get to their seats. Wilma would eliminate this problem, if implemented well. Evidence from airlines, however, suggests that the Wilma fails because of our own resistance to being regulated by boarding procedures at all. Wilma also becomes less efficient when people with window seats arrive at the gate after boarding has begun. Shuttle by United tried to adopt Wilma ten years ago, but abandoned the attempt because of passengers' reactions.

Another factor in boarding delay is aisles being blocked by people trying to stow luggage in overhead bins. With new security regulations limiting what passengers can bring in carry-on, it is possible that more luggage is being checked, and as a result there is less delay caused by stowage problems. All the articles I found agree that enforcing carry-on luggage restrictions is one way airlines can improve boarding procedures.

Other procedures have been tried: Southwest's solution is to abandon assigned seating altogether, essentially creating a totally random boarding process which seems generally acceptable to passengers. Passengers are likely to be positively influenced about their experience if they are given more sense of control. AirTran implemented a new system last year, which boards the back four rows, then the front four rows, working towards the middle of the plane. It seems this system would work well, provided people with rear seats who arrive late are held until the next wave of rear-seat boarding.

Keith Devlin points out that airlines are also making decisions based on customer satisfaction, which means that certain passengers will always be given preferential boarding, whether or not science supports this practice.

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