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An Allegedly Better Way To Board An Airplane

There might not be a more stressful part of traveling than the simple act of boarding a plane these days. That’s because a lack of overhead bin space and a preponderance of people carrying bags on the plane because they don’t want to spend twenty-five bucks checking them means it’s a race to get aboard as early as possible. And because people can’t find their seats, or can’t find bin space, or can’t comprehend the idea of buckling seat belts, it’s a free-for-all, it takes forever, and it’s just annoying.

Dr. Jason Steffen of Fermilab developed a method a few years ago that he said would cut 40% off the time it takes to board passengers on a plane. The simple idea is to have window seats board first, then middle seats, then aisle seats, all in alternating rows. A TV pilot called This Vs. That, kind of a Mythbusters clone by producer Jon Hotchkiss, took him up on the challenge, corralled 100 people to try his method, and the result is what you see above.


But I’m not that impressed, because this resembles no boarding procedure I’ve ever witnessed, not due to the order of boarding but because I don’t see things that ALWAYS happen during boarding: Someone’s bag doesn’t fit. There’s no room in the overhead. Someone’s carrying too much and they struggle to fit in the aisle, then in their seat. Someone has to use the lavatory while people are boarding. DId I mention there’s NO FREAKIN’ ROOM IN THE OVERHEAD? Someone wants a blanket or a seat extender. Someone wants to sit next to their friend whom she just met in the Chili’s 2 Go in the terminal. Any one of these things would throw Dr. Steffen’s brilliant idea into chaos. More than one? Armageddon with Samsonite.

You’d also be assuming that everyone’s at the gate on time, that everyone’s orderly and well-behaved and won’t rush the gate or try to slip on board ahead of their group. Since I’ve never seen a plane where that stuff doesn’t happen, I don’t think those are safe assumptions. Plus, are you going to take couples and families who are sitting together and board them separately, one at a time? Yes, the plan says you can make minor accommodations (as long as none of them are near the front of the cabin), and it does include the “families with small children board first” exception, but I just don’t see this standing up to the kind of behavior you get from airline passengers. (And if I had a dime for every family with small children who show up at the gate well into general boarding, dragging two strollers and countless diaper bags and other accessories….) If I thought it would work, I’d be all for it; I’ll take anything to make my life easier. But I’m skeptical.

And, yes, that’s the guy from Studs, Mark De Carlo, as one of the hosts. Don’t hold an embarrassing old dating game against him.

HT: Popular Science

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18 comments

  • [quote]An Allegedly Better Way To Board An Airplane by Perry Michael Simon on August 30, 2011 There might not be a more stressful part of traveling than the simple act of boarding a plane these days. That’s because a lack of overhead bin space and a preponderance of people carrying bags on the plane because they don’t want to spend twenty-five bucks checking them means it’s a race to get aboard as early as possible. And because people can’t find their seats, or can’t find bin space, or can’t comprehend the idea of buckling seat belts, it’s a free-for-all, it takes forever, and it’s just annoying. Dr. Jason Steffen of Fermilab developed a method a few years ago that he said would cut 40% off the time it takes to board passengers on a plane. The simple idea is to have window seats board first, then middle seats, then aisle seats, all in alternating rows. A TV pilot called This Vs. That, kind of a Mythbusters clone by producer Jon Hotchkiss, took him up on the challenge, corralled 100 people to try his method, and the result is what you see above. But I’m not that impressed, because this resembles no boarding procedure I’ve ever witnessed, not due to the order of boarding but because I don’t see things that ALWAYS happen during boarding: Someone’s bag doesn’t fit. There’s no room in the overhead. Someone’s carrying too much and they struggle to fit in the aisle, then in their seat. Someone has to use the lavatory while people are boarding. DId I mention there’s NO FREAKIN’ ROOM IN THE OVERHEAD? Someone wants a blanket or a seat extender. Someone wants to sit next to their friend whom she just met in the Chili’s 2 Go in the terminal. Any one of these things would throw Dr. Steffen’s brilliant idea into chaos. More than one? Armageddon with Samsonite. You’d also be assuming that everyone’s at the gate on time, that everyone’s orderly and well-behaved and won’t rush the gate or try to slip on board ahead of their group. Since I’ve never seen a plane where that stuff doesn’t happen, I don’t think those are safe assumptions. Plus, are you going to take couples and families who are sitting together and board them separately, one at a time? Yes, the plan says you can make minor accommodations (as long as none of them are near the front of the cabin), and it does include the “families with small children board first” exception, but I just don’t see this standing up to the kind of behavior you get from airline passengers. (And if I had a dime for every family with small children who show up at the gate well into general boarding, dragging two strollers and countless diaper bags and other accessories….) If I thought it would work, I’d be all for it; I’ll take anything to make my life easier. But I’m skeptical. And, yes, that’s the guy from Studs, Mark De Carlo, as one of the hosts. Don’t hold an embarrassing old dating game against him. HT: Popular Science[/quote]
    Thanks. I enjoy this..
    Thanks! I delight in it!

  • Another problem with your wait-to-the-end system, Russell W., is that you’re going to spend the next 1-4 hours sitting on the plane, do you really want to spend your last few minutes of freedom sitting around? I can’t fault the basic concept, but I might try to use that time to stretch and walk around before getting on the plane.

  • Rules won’t work, because people are already breaking the rules. So, the same folks will skip the line, lie about their seats, bring too much, or show up late.

    Similarly, shame doesn’t work. I have a tape playing in my head already that makes me show up on time (an hour early) and not bring anything close to the carry-on size. Those who participate as good citizens are already doing it.

    You need psychology. I don’t know if they can get that autistic girl Temple Grandin, who tricked cows into pens for slaughter (the one in the HBO movie played by Claire Danes) to crack this.

    At the very least, airlines could make the rest of us feel better. Make a few, clear rules. Then, charge everyone a small carry on fee. Those who follow the rules get a refund when getting off. Those who don’t before the seatbelt light goes off not only lose it, but that money is put into a raffle for drinks or snacks with seats pulled at random.

  • Well, Russell, waiting till the last moment to board only works if you have no carry-on luggage or you are not in coach. Being the last to board, with carry-on luggage, in coach, means you’re never going to have space to fit your bag in the overhead compartment close to your seat, as coach has waaaay too little room for each passenger’s things.

  • Exactly. I always wait until they make the very last boarding call. I’ve never understood why people wait in line and shuffle along, when you could stay comfy in your lounge seat for an extra twenty minutes. They make the last call, you get up, get on the plane and sit down on the plane. No waiting in line. (Obviously, this only works because I’m the only one on the plane doing it, usually.)

  • What I have never figured out is why aren’t the chairs around the gates laid out like the seats in the plane. You could then ‘pre-seat’ people in their ‘right places’, and use that as a queue. Another thing I’ve never been able to figure out is why business and/or first class passengers are boarded first, just to have the ‘unwashed masses’ parade by on their way to coach. I’d much rather prefer to stay in the VIP lounge until all coach passengers were already aboard if I had a Business of First-class ticket.

  • As someone who travels for work all of the time, that was not a normal flight. There were not nearly enough roller boards being pulled by rude business men who are all on their phones during the entire boarding process. And I can’t remember when I ever saw that much room in the overhead bins.

  • Surely there’s the obvious consideration of just how you order the passengers prior to boarding the plane? Is calling out one name at a time going to be more efficient than just accepting the nearest in a queue first?

  • If they charged a fee to carry on anything more than a laptop bag and made checked bags free, it would save 20 minutes at boarding. They also need to shame the people who show up as the door is closing with a large roller bag and a purse the size of a small car.

    On my flight to Amsterdam this weekend, a woman strolled on to the plane to take the very last open seat in coach with a full size suitcase in tow. The flight attendant looked at her like she was a terrorist and I just laughed. She said and I quote “I have never had a problem bringing this on board before.” There is no plane in the world that would accommodate that bag in the overhead. Did she have to pay for the bag to be checked? no. Was she shamed into corrective behavior? no. She just made us all 15 minutes later and she was mad because she would have to wait for her bag at baggage claim.

    This is why it takes forever to get boarded, the people getting on board are all self-a$$holes!

  • I’m not certain that the objections you pose would make it not worth the trouble of trying the system out large-scale. It doesn’t seem designed to *eliminate* those problems or the associated delay, only to *reduce* the disruption that those problems cause in the boarding procedure. They show one such disruption in the video (passenger in the wrong seat) and point out how the delay caused is momentary or zero problems for other passengers entering the plane. Of course that sort of thing happens with the current system — as does double and triple simultaneous seating — but it seems that the idea is to maximize the chances of those occurrences.

    The concern with splitting up friends and families I will agree with, but the airlines are already treating us like cattle, so that seems like a consideration which could be overcome assuming enough time savings for the process.

  • A lot seems to be made repeatedly out of three people sitting down at the same time. Put enough people on a plane at once, and some will sit down at the same time. I’ve seen three people sit down at the same moment on the ‘L’ in Chicago, it certainly doesn’t mean the CTA is a model of efficiency.

  • Is it really that people just want window seats? I thought it was more people wanting to sit as close to the front as possible so they can get off the plane 5 minutes sooner.
    What they need to do is get rid of, or at least greatly reduce, baggage-check fees so people won’t try to stuff giant suit cases into overhead bins.
    And even more impossibly, planes should have two doors. If you entered from a back door, and exited from a front door, the most desirable seats would be furthest from the entrance, reducing that bottle-neck.

  • I agree that there’s no way this would work in the real world. There will never be a time when everyone is there on time and people with the seats that board last will always rush the line preventing any attempt at orderly boarding (probably my biggest pet peeve when traveling). I wonder though if these boarding issues are uniquely American. I spent July traveling around Europe and never encountered any of the usual boarding issues or rudeness I usually see here.

  • Hello Perry —

    This is Jon Hotchkiss… I’m the executive producer of the new series, This vs That — the show whose clip you have embedded above.

    I wanted to say thank you very much for taking the time to read our airplane boarding study and making it the topic for your blog today.

    We are going to be conducting many exciting experiments in the coming weeks and months that will be compiled into a new 6 episode series.

    I would like to encourage you and your readers to follow us on Twitter:

    @thisvsthatshow

    We’ll be releasing more clips from the show, along with behind the scenes photos as well.

    Kindest Regards,
    Jon Hotchkiss