Oct 23rd, 2023

“We are now boarding the aircraft” – Why does it take so long?

Boarding a commercial aircraft is a time consuming process.  Doctor Aviation examines why.

How Airplanes are Boarded

Most airlines utilize a system where passengers select a specific seat.  That seat is assigned to a certain zone.  Aircraft are loaded by the gate attendant calling different zone numbers.  So, first class passengers, business class passengers and frequent flyers with high miles board first. Then boarding is started by zone.  Ideally this will allow passengers to board in an efficient manner.  Yet it is still time consuming

Why Boarding Take so Long – The Carry on Bag

Passengers who roll their carry on bag onto the airplane, and there are a lot of them, slow the process.  First, instead of focusing on where they are going to find their seat, the passenger is focusing on where to find an empty space in the overhead bins.  Often passengers want an overhead bin near the front of the airplane so that they minimize the distance they travel with the bag.  Once they find the spot, it usually takes 10-15 seconds to lift the bag, turn it in the air and position it in the overhead bin and ensure that it is secure.  All this must occur while trying not to hit another passenger. 

What kills me about the process is when weaker passengers, often the elderly and often small females are unable to lift the bag into the overhead compartment.  This requires a sympathetic passenger to aid the person or a flight attendant to make their way through the crowd to the struggling passenger, further delaying the process

Why Boarding Take so Long – The Check Baggage Fees

It seems that 20 years ago, very few passengers took roller carry on bags onto the aircraft.  They were usually passengers who were staying just overnight, and they wanted to avoid waiting at baggage claims for a small bag.  Now it seems that everyone wants to bring on a carry on.  Why is that?  Simple: The Checked Baggage Fee.

Passengers can pay an extra $30 for a checked bag, or they can roll it on for free.  Most passengers want to save a buck, or 30, and so it is a “no brainer”.  Now you may have 100 passengers lifted bags into the overhead compartment and that translates to an extra 15 minutes or so of boarding time.  If airlines want to cut boarding time, they need to cut the Check Bag Fee.  Why won’t they?  American Airlines has 1.24 billion reasons not to do so, that is how much money they made from checked bags in March 2018- March 2019.  That is a lot of money. 

United Airlines New Boarding System

So instead of instituting a course of action that would definitely speed up boarding, dropping the Checked Bag Fee, airlines are trying another course of action.  United Airlines recently announced a new boarding procedure. 

First class passengers, business class passengers and frequent flyers with high miles board first, same as usual.  Then the agent will board all the window seats, then the middle seats, then the aisle seats passengers.  Theoretically this should speed up the process as no one will need to climb over another passenger. 

Why this won’t work – those pesky carry on bags.  All the window seat passengers will snag the overhead bins near the front the of the aircraft.  Then the middle seat passengers will fill in the rest.  By the time the aisle seat passengers in the front board the aircraft, they will have to go to the back of the aircraft and to find an empty overhead bin.  They will have to turn around and go against the oncoming passengers like the proverbially salmon swimming upstream.  It will be a nightmare. 

I suspect United will drop the program in a few months, continue the bag fees and continue the slow boarding.  “Be careful as you open the overhead bins as items may shift during flight”.

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