Why is it so difficult for airlines to design a quick and easy boarding process? For the typical economy-class passenger, boarding something bigger than a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320 involves a certain degree of chaos. New rules regarding social distancing and mask wearing in the airline industry have imposed a new sense of order in air travel. Does that mean we can expect faster and smoother boarding?
Boarding upside down
Most airlines still use the “back-to-front” boarding method. Premium passengers, parents and guardians with young children and those who need assistance first, then passengers seated in the back of the cabin, followed by those in the middle and finally passengers assigned to the first row seats .
Logic says this is the way to go. In practice, when passengers seated in the rear are called upon to board, others have generally skipped the queue and now occupy seats in the front of the cabin. Some of those passengers will block the aisle as they struggle to hoist carry-on luggage into the overhead compartments, creating choke points for those heading to the rear.
In 2008, astrophysicist Jason Steffen used mathematics and computer modeling to come up with an improved variant of the traditional boarding method. Starting from the rear of the cabin, those who first assigned an odd-numbered window seat board, followed by those of the even-numbered window seats, then come the odd-numbered middle seat passengers, the even numbered middle seats and finally the same process for those in the aisle.
Although the Steffen method has been proven to work in an experimental mock-up of a Boeing cabin, cutting boarding times by about half, you might not be surprised to learn that no airline has never adopted the Steffen method. At least not wholeheartedly, even if some airlines think in the same direction.
In mid-2020, Japanese airline ANA introduced a boarding method that divides passengers into six groups. The first to board are those in the rear window seats, followed by the central rear seats, then come the passengers from the rear aisle seats. This process is then repeated for the passengers seated in the front of the cabin.
This system is known by the acronym WILMA, (window, middle, aisle boarding). In an experiment conducted by the MythBusters team, boarding using the WILMA system saved nearly 10 minutes on boarding time for a single-aisle aircraft compared to the traditional back-to-face method.
The ANA boarding method offers additional refinement as passengers board back-to-front, known as the WILMA zone system. By all reports, boarding an ANA aircraft works wonderfully. Boarding time is reduced, stress is reduced – but that’s probably not going to work any wider because, well, we’re not all Japanese. Japan is a well-ordered and disciplined society. Department store salespeople bow to greet, pedestrians walk on the right side of the sidewalk, and all closely observe the protocols around wearing shoes indoors. Respect for the rules is encoded in Japanese DNA. The order brings comfort.
We are much less inclined to queue. Being told when to get on board is a face of our right to do what we love when we want to. What if I board before my zone is called? The boarding gate team checking boarding passes isn’t going to stop me, I’m going to get in early, mark a lot of empty space in the overhead compartments and it’s just me – so What’s the problem ? And when others think the same, chaos ensues. What works for ANA probably won’t work for Emirates, Garuda, Qantas, or Alitalia.
Country characteristics aside, another reason the WILMA system has not been more widely adopted is that some airlines have monetized their boarding process. Some passengers are willing to pay extra for priority boarding. It is therefore suitable for the airline if boarding is inconvenient. If boarding becomes faster and smoother, the airline could lose that revenue stream.
Has the coronavirus made a difference?
New rules regarding social distancing and mask wearing in the airline industry have imposed a new sense of order in air travel. Does this mean that we are more likely to behave more like the Japanese?
As part of its Fly Well anti-coronavirus program introduced in mid-2020, Qantas has announced sequenced boardings and disembarkations to minimize congestion on its larger planes. On board one of the company’s A330s, for example, passengers are called for boarding from the rear of the plane, five rows at a time.
Other airlines have had similar policies in place for several years. Passengers traveling with Southwest Airlines get a boarding pass with a group, either A, B or C, and a number between 1 and 60. When your group is called to board, you find your place in the queue. hold, identified by markers every five numbers, for example 31-35. Monitors at the start of the queue regulate the boarding process, and this diligence is the key to the success of any strict boarding method. In reality, few airline crews are willing to put aside passengers who show up for boarding before their area is called. As soon as the passengers realize they can board their tour without consequences, they do and lawlessness reigns.
Boarding a Virgin Australia flight at Gold Coast Airport for a flight to Sydney on February 18, there was simply an announcement that boarding for the 737-800 was now open, with no stipulated order. On the tarmac, passengers were directed to the forward or aft stairs and sitting in the cabin three quarters full was hassle-free.
Qantas’ new onboarding process has made a difference, some say. Although the fear of the coronavirus persists, it is possible that passengers are generally more compliant. Once the shadows have passed, the masks come off, and a sense of normalcy returns to the air, the flyers might not be so obedient. In Melbourne and Sydney, as a sense of normalcy returns, the strict social distancing that has applied on public transport since the height of the pandemic is being ignored during rush hours. Why would air travel be any different?
The living room lizard
“Could the last remaining passengers from Flight X board now?” This is my boarding call. Until then, I am sitting relaxed and comfortable in the economy lounge. There is a lot to be said for being one of the last to embark. No line up at the gate, a nearly empty sky bridge if you time it right, a quick walk down the aisle. Why rush to get crushed in an uncomfortable seat and spend at least 10 minutes in a slow line to get there? Sure, the luggage compartments might be crowded, but travel with modest carry-on that stows under the seat in the front and don’t worry.
See also: Get ready: long-haul travel might not start until 2023
See also: What you need to know about the new “OK to travel” pass adopted by airlines