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November 06, 2005

Airliner Boarding Fixes

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

You find boarding an airliner a breeze, right?

Apparently a few folks don't, and the November 2nd Wall Street Journal had two related articles dealing with how airlines are trying to speed the process; it seems that long boarding-times depress potential revenue because the risk of departure delay is raised.

A page-one article was about a mathematician who worked on an efficiency-raising method now being rolled out by United Airlines. Then there was an article starting on the first page of the Personal Journal section that related the experiences of Journal staffers with various passenger loading modes. I'll summarize the second article, which includes the method covered in the first article.

The United Airlines system basically boards from the windows inward as opposed to the traditional back-to-front procedure. Boarding is by section (1, 2, 3, ... or A, B, C, ... or whatever) and the change was that the computer had 1 or A be window rather than rear seats, thus keeping the instructions to passengers the same as they were previously. The supposed efficiency gain is that window passengers will have completed any overhead stowage and will be seated before the middle-seat cohort arrives. Otherwise, aisle and middle-seaters would have to climb back into the aisle so the window-seater could get to his seat (assuming he got on last).

(The mathematician's solution was a slight elaboration, where some back-front adjustments were made atop the windows-inward scheme.)

The Journal writers didn't find much, if any, improvement on their flights. They thought this was due to the fact that United preserved advance-boarding for travelers with infants and young children, elderly or handicapped passengers, First Class ticket holders and high-mileage customers, this leading to aisle-clutter as the window-seaters arrived.

They found that there was line-jumping on most flights regardless of loading scheme and that airlines tended to be lax regarding the amount of carry-on baggage allowed. Apparently Continental Airlines started boarding 10 minutes sooner before scheduled push-back than other airlines and this helped avoid departure delays.

An interesting factoid in the other article is that boarding rates as measured by passengers-per-minute have dropped over the past few decades: the current average is nine per minute.

I fly Alaska Airlines between Seattle and San Jose a lot, so I found the Journal's coverage of especial interest. This year, I'm a high-mileage "MVP" (Most Valuable Passenger?) which means I get to board early unless the gal at the counter orders general boarding instead of by row. Sadly, I won't have enough miles or flights this year to be a 2006 MVP.

Sometimes, Alaska can board and deplane with astonishing speed, (By the way, apparently the math-whizzes didn't consider the arrival end of the flight). Here is how it is done.

Oops, one more detail. I only find it done at San Jose and not Seattle. You see, Alaska uses Terminal C in San Jose and Terminal C is a living fossil so far as large airports go. It has no boarding ramps: instead, you have to use stairs or Z-shaped ramps that are pushed up to the plane's door.

Not all the time, but sometimes Alaska will roll stairs up to both the front and rear passenger doors of a 737. Or for a MD-80, they'll have stairs at the front door and drop the integral rear stairs to the ground as a second entry or exit. Using two doors makes short work of loading and deplaning.

Early in the jet age, around 1960, airlines and airports were experimenting, trying to figure out how to deal with airliners that carried many more passengers than propeller planes and flew more frequently thanks to much faster speeds. It was at this point that boarding ramps were introduced. Some new terminals were designed so that ramps could extend to both front and rear plane doors. But as traffic boomed, airports found this arrangement was too wasteful of terminal frontage and the present arrangement of planes nosing up to the terminal and only one loading ramp being used became the norm.

So one of these years San Jose will replace Terminal C with a state-of-the-art facility where planes load and unload using ramps to the nose only.

Such is progress.



posted by Donald at November 6, 2005


My most recent flight, JetBlue from West Palm Beach to JFK about a year ago, used a similar two-entrance boarding system. Passengers with seats in the front half of the aircraft boarded through the jetbridge while those in the second half used a stairway leading to the A320's rear exit. My impression was that it made for much quicker boarding than the usual jetbridge-only system. It was labor-intensive, however, as three or four workers had to be stationed on the tarmac to keep rear-boarding passengers from straying, this presumably being a TSA rule.

Posted by: Peter on November 6, 2005 8:06 PM

Geeze, Donald, it seems like the old fashioned, roll-up stairways are now the rule when I fly, at least from Burbank or Long Beach airports.

Also, what continues to surprise me is that modern airlines seem to focus on routes and changing the mix of planes they fly, when the real improvements that are begging to be made in the whole experience of air travel are in the terminal (or in its parkinglot.)

The standard air terminal is based on a 19th century, pre-automobile railroad station model. Surely some clever engineer / architect / designer could work out a better set of ways for people to get themselves and their luggage out of cars, through terminals and onto planes (and then reversing the process on the other end). How about a valet parking arrangement where you drop off your car and your luggage is transferred directly into the baggage handling system from your trunk? I, for one, would definitely pay extra for this type of service, and properly set up I bet it would be more efficient than the current system. Or, at a minimum, airports could scatter a series of luggage check-in stations throughout the parking lots, connected by underground conveyor belts to the terminal? (This would have security advantages as well, as the greatest vulnerability of airports to terrorists is while huge numbers of people are patiently cuing up to check in with their luggage.)

Anyway, whether these are workable ideas or not, I continue to be simply astonished that nobody experiments with notions like this. A change in this area would provide some airline with a genuinely unique identity in the market.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 6, 2005 10:46 PM

Not to act obsessed with this topic or anything, but...

...does it ever seem to you that an airport terminal is like a 19th century factory that never had a time-motion study performed on it? Where everything has to be pulled around by hand, and where objects have to be lifted off the floor and hoisted up into the air, all by human power? It's just all so, well, primitive and inefficient!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 6, 2005 10:54 PM

how about truly limiting the size of carry on luggage - if it has wheels and you can not actually lift the bag its not carry on - people really clog up the artery trying to jam luggage into the carry on bins or have to search for other compartments to store thier over large "carry on" bags - check your freaking luggage.

Posted by: kevin on November 7, 2005 11:37 AM

It is definitely those carry on luggage people who hold up everything--boarding and deplaning. Live dangerously and check your damn bag, fer crissakes! Some of those bags could hold a small family.

Posted by: Rachel on November 7, 2005 12:40 PM

The United system (board from the windows in) was awful. Because frequent flyers and the entire Economy Plus system still boarded first, it didn't work out well at all. Besides, even if you eliminate all exceptions, you aren't going to eliminate problems. Does the family with small children sitting in one row have to board separately?

No, the problem is overhead luggage. On my last flight, later boarders found their overhead bins full, so they had to go back several rows to find a space for their luggage, and then swim upstream to get back to their seats. I don't know what the solution is. Airlines could enforce overhead restrictions, but because those with the largest luggage also tend to be frequent flyers, they are fairly loath to do this.

Posted by: CyndiF on November 7, 2005 2:48 PM

Freidrich is correct about improving things on the terminal side. Why do so many business travelers carry on their luggage?--because when you fly often, especially on short trips, the 45 min you have to spend at BWI waiting for your luggage to be unloaded becomes an evil to avoid. Coming home to Denver, I don't mind checking my luggage because their much-maligned-now-working automatic baggage handling system gets my bag to the belt at or before the time I get there.

Posted by: CyndiF on November 7, 2005 2:53 PM

DIA's "much-maligned-now-working baggage handling system" will be removed.

Still, their conventional baggage system works pretty well. You usually don't have to wait very long for your baggage after navigating the maze of corridors, escalators, and trains from the gate to the baggage carousel. OTOH, you have to navigate the maze of corridors, etc. to get to the carousel, so it might be a wash.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 7, 2005 5:32 PM

It's the luggage. People are going to find ways to carry it on, no matter what the rules say, so long as airlines make checking and retrieving it such a time-consuming and damage/theft-prone enterprise.

Everyone knows that if you have valuable goods you have to carry them on or ship them via other means. So why does it have to be this way? Why is it safer to drop my laptop or whatever at the Post Office or FedEx counter than to check it as airline baggage?

Maybe the airlines should grant a luggage concession to FedEx. I'm not kidding, it might work. I'd pay extra to have FedEx take my bags at the airport and deliver them, insured, at my destination. Is this a dream?

Posted by: Jonathan on November 7, 2005 6:10 PM

Although I don't disagree that airplane embarcation and disembarcation could probably be improved, I don't think people realize how much of an improvement the current system already is over the relatively "recent" past (the early jet age). In other words, I don't think people realize all the cleverness and intelligent thinking that actually went into the current system -- as problematic as it may be.

JFK airport, nee Idelwild, is a perfect -- and amusing -- example. When it was built (in the late 1950s) it was the world's first airport built for jet travel. I don't believe the jet bridge had been invented yet, as passengers at the International Arrivals Building (designed by S.O.M.) used to use roll-up stairways, and the big innovation (the subject of a feature story in the grade school student's "bible" -- the "Weekly Reader") was covered stairways to keep out the wind, rain and snow.

One of the airport's showpiece terminals, the Pan Am terminal, went one better in that its terminal was shaped like a giant mushroom, and passengers could embark or disembark under the umbrella roof -- but the jet planes had to mosey-up to relatively fixed gateways around the terminal's "stem," I believe. (And I'm not sure if there were two fixed gateways -- front entrance and back entrance -- per plane, or only one.)

Most remakably, I believe a good number of the terminals (including the magnificent TWA terminal by Eero Sarineen) had only one level of driveway for both arriving and departing passengers -- although these terminals did try to spatially separate out arriving and departing passengers in other ways. For instance, in the TWA Terminal I believe departing passengers had the first part of the driveway (where the check-in counters were just behind the doors) and departing passengers had the far side of the driveway. In the neighboring National Airlines building (designed by I.M. Pei), there were really two terminals, a street-side terminal and a tarmac-side terminal, connected by elevated covered pedestrian bridges. The cars for departing passengers dropped them off at the front of the street-side terminal (where they took escalators up to the pedestrian bridges), while the vehicles for arriving passengers used a driveway that went between the street-side terminal and the tarmac-side terminal.

In the early 1960s, there used to be a United Airways ad that showed its terminal at, I believe, Los Angeles International Airport. This terminal is an "island" surrounded by jet planes. (I guess the passengers reach it underground.) The overhead photo in the ad showed two jet bridges per plane, one for the front and one for the back of the plane. Not being much of an airline traveler, I had assumed that this clever arrangement (an island terminal building has at least a bit more frontage, and is thus more likely able to "afford" two jetbridges per plane) had become the idealized "norm" in totally modern airports.

Speaking of novel solutions to getting people on and off planes, after Eero Sarinnan designed New York's TWA terminal, he thought he came up with the perfect solution at Dulles Airport -- one that would work even into the "space age" -- the mobile lounge. In this system, passengers relax in a lounge prior to departure and when it becomes time to board, the lounge detaches from the terminal and travels out to the plane. I suppose there were different lounges for the front and back doors of the plane. As I understand it, these lounges were rather quickly abandoned in favor of the newly invented (?) jetbridges.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 7, 2005 7:37 PM

P.S. -- I think Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal, unlike JFK's original Pan Am Terminal and original International Arrivals Building, was actually an early adapter of the "winning" solution of movable and telescoping jetbridges to get people on and off planes. But I think Saarinen didn't like all the walking that was necessitated by this set-up, so that's why he thought his mobile lounge idea at Dulles would be an even better solution.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 7, 2005 7:54 PM

The airlines certainly would like to limit the use of carry-on baggage, as doing so would help reduce delays, but for obvious competitive reaosns no airline would dare be the first to impose stringent restrictions. What they're probably hoping for is an FAA edict limiting carry-ons for safety or security reasons.

Posted by: Peter on November 7, 2005 9:42 PM

Many of you zeroed in on luggage as the prime culprit, so I'll start with a general reply on that subject, then move on to what other commenters mentioned.

I agree that luggage is main reason why boarding a plane is such a pain. I'll plead guilty to being a luggage-in-the-overhead guy myself -- in the past, anyway. But, praise the Lord, I have changed my ways.

Why was I an overhead packrat and why did I change? I used to use the overhead because I can get by with fairly small bags for an entire trip; I used to do three-week European trips using a bag that would fit in the bin plus a shoulder-bag. The wait and hassle of waiting for luggage at the carousel was another factor. But the most important reason was fear that my luggage would get lost.

I changed over to checking my luggage for two reasons. First, bar-code based luggage tracking seems to have reduced the risk of loss. Second, tighter security checking since 9/11 had made it a hassle to run luggage through the inspection. I used to get my luggage opened because I had a tiny pair of blunt-ended baby scissors in my odds 'n' ends carrying plastic box. Checking the luggage eliminates the inspection pain; if my bag gets inspected (and it does from time to time), that happens off-stage.

I have no solution to the luggage problem aside from changes in regulations or airline policies.

And I might add that winter flying when bulky coats and jackets go into the bins only makes the stowage problem worse, but I see no cure at all for this aside from freeing up a row or two of seats for a coat closet (fat chance).

Peter -- JetBlue does seem to be a sensibly-run airline. I think the additional personnel are not security-related, but are there for passenger safety -- making sure no one strays too near the engines or other places where trouble can happen. True, personnel cost money and airlines have no balance money saved via faster turnaround against cost of extra workers to run the stairs.

Friedrich -- Interesting that Burbank and Long Beach still use stairs too -- maybe it's a California/pleasant climate thing. Umm, Orange County (John Wayne) Airport doesn't use stairs, and it's in the neighborhood. I've flown into more than 50 airports over the last 30 years or so and all but the tiniest used ramps aside from San Jose and (through the 70s) Albany, NY.

Yes airports are a funny sort of beast. To be fair, the rule is that they grow incrementally, never quite escaping what was built in past years. Matter of fact, the busier airports seem to be perpetually under construction. Seldom (in the USA anyhow) is an airport designed and built from scratch. Now I have great respect for empirical knowledge and I once planned to write a book about how, absent great technological changes, things fall into a "best" shape or form -- consider how little the belt buckle has changed over centuries. There should be such knowledge regarding terminals. I don't see gross differnces in functions between train stations and airports; people need to have places to enter and leave, to buy tickets, to sit and wait, to eat and use the bathroom, etc.

So it seems odd that "greenfield" jet-era airports so often appear to be so screwed up in spite of the accumulated knowledge; architects and planners seem bent on trying untested theories instead of refining what worked in the past. The super-space-agey original drum-shaped part of Paris' Charles de Gaulle is a confusing mess so far as I'm concerned. I've only flown in and out of the new Denver airport once, but the baggage system seems to be a failure according to one comment here. Dallas-Ft. Worth is huge, but seems to work okay when changing planes for one airline; I've never originated or terminated a flight there. Ditto Kansas City. I'll discuss Dulles Airport in reply to Benjamin's comment shortly.

Jonathan -- Interesting idea. Why not pass it along to the airlines, starting with FedEx, DHL and UPS.

Benjamin -- I'll replay to a couple points of the vast feast you provided for our thought.

Back in the early 60s I sometimes drove over to Idlewild (as it was then) to entertain myself. In those days it was easy to park, easy to figure out and easy to get from one terminal to another (I was sans luggage, natch). One fun thing was looking at all those 707s and DC-8s with livery of foreign airlines. Today the place strikes me as chaotic, though the people-mover train is a huge benefit for getting from terminal to terminal and from the airport to the subway system. Last year we flew to/from Athens on Delta which incorporated the old Pan Am terminal in their complex (they also took over many of Pan Am's European routes); I could barely recognize the old building.

As for Dulles, Saarinen did latch onto the mobile lounge concept, but in the back of my skull I recall that one or two European arports were using them too. I forget the details and can't say who was first.

Anyway, I hated the things. They added a lot of unnecessary time to the emplane/deplane process simply traversing the tarmac from the main terminal to the aircraft. And this is not to mention the time spent on the plane on arrival waiting for the next lounge to arrive once one was filled and on its way.

Things had changed the last time I was there (2001). They still had the mobile lounges, but they went from docks in the main termimal to docks on one or another of two conventional linear satellite terminals located where the planes used to arrive and get serviced in the old days. In other words, you went to the main terminal for ticketing/check-in, took the lounge to a regular gate segment with all the normal gateside amenities (newstands, souvenir shops, Burger King, etc.) I call it an improvement, but an underground people-mover belt would be more convenient still.

By the way, the underground thing was what United had at LAX. The dual-entry I mentioned in the main posting was at San Francisco. I don't yet have a scanner, so I couldn't illustrate it (couldn't quikly find a pic on the Web, either).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 7, 2005 11:31 PM

For me, the problem isn't so much long boarding times as it is long deboarding times. After all, you're supposed to arrive an hour before the flight; you might as well get on the plane. My father in law, who has travelled extensively, says it's a problem unique to the west. Everywhere else, they pull up a stairway to each door, and everyone deplanes in 30 seconds or so. Here, with only one door open, it takes forever.

Posted by: dave munger on November 8, 2005 5:36 AM

Re.: Deboarding.
Why don't the airlines combine fun with education with deboarding?
All deboarding should be done by the terminals but without the use of the extended nozzle jutting out from the terminal allowing only exit trhough the one front door.
Use the emergency exits.
Employ the emergency slides. (this will also discourage folks from inflicting carry-ons of mammoth sizes upon the rest of us air travellers)
Have shuttle buses readily available. And, if you really want to thrill the passengers, tie in with the Segway folks and have personal carriers available for a nominal rental fee. Cute little baggage carriers on the sides and off you scoot/go. Sugueing to your next destination.

Exiting the plane in this fashion will give a passenger a good feeling about the efficacy of the emergency exit system. And if you're travelling with kids?? What better way to end the trip than with a (free) slide ride.

The best part? You don't have to exchange the obligatory good-byes with the pilots, who'd much rather be transporting non-human, non-talking, non-complaining steerage anyway.

Posted by: DarkoV on November 8, 2005 10:56 AM

DarkoV's comment reminds me that the first time I took an airplane ride I was about three or four years old -- which was old enough to know that I was on something that flew in the air, but young enough to know about air travel only what I'd seen on TV. Thus, I was not knowledgeable enough to know the difference between a plane and a ("Flash Gordon") rocket ship or between a routine plane trip and an unusual one. So I thought ALL airplane flights ended with crew and passengers nonchanlantly bracing themselves for a rough "crashlanding" [one word] and then running as quickly as they could to get far enough away to be safe in case the thing actually blew up! In other words, I thought airplanes had essentially one-trip lifespans -- i.e., were disposables.

(To make this world view seem a little more understandable, in the early- mid-1950s we use to take ferries a lot, and, in the New York City area at least, large ferries seem to be designed to stop themselves by "crashing" (very noisly and with more than bumper car violence) a few times into these giant wooden bumpers that use the momentum of the ferry to eventually guide one end of the boat into a dock.)

- - - - -

While I'm not familiar enough with airports worldwide to comment on their mistakes, the mistakes at Idelwild/JFK seem reasonable to me.

1) There do seem to be some significant differences between air and train travel that would have required the development of some new, and therefore untested, approaches to the design of airplane terminals. Trains, for instance, can actually go inside of a train terminal and they also easily sidle-up to island platforms (themselves an innovation from about 1910 or so) which can accommodate ALL the doors of a train at the very same time.

2) There have been significant changes in the nature of air travel that have made the Idelwild/JFK set-up (which was probably intelligent for the late 1950s) obsolete -- and also a concept that is very difficult to to successfully retrofit. For instance, I believe jumbo jets could not fit underneath the Pan Am umbrella. And JFK was built before the shift to mass hub and spoke air travel (where changing planes became the norm). So its system of relatively small, discrete terminals for individual airlines became dysfunctional in this new age of air travel.

- - - - - - - - - - -

Interesting to hear what eventually happened to the mobile lounges at Dulles!

I'll have to look this up, but I got the impression that Saarineen's office virtually invented the mobile lounge specificially for Dulles -- or, at least, that's the impression that was given in the architectural press at the time. I believe Saarineen gave interviews where he talked proudly about developing the idea of the moblie lounge and how these were the largest things of their type ever built.

In any case, it seems like a very "Saarineen" kind of thing to do. At his TWA Terminal at Idelwild he originally designed moving walkways for the long space-agey "tubes" connecting the "butterfly" concourse with the outlying embarcation / disembarcation "pods." (The moving walkways were dropped because, I believe, they were seen as too expensive at the time.)

- - - - - -

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I flew into San Bernardino airport (actually it's the Ontario, Calif. airport), and to my surprise and delight they also used roll-up to the plane stairways.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 8, 2005 2:44 PM


Two comments:

In western Canada, WestJet uses double ramps at the Calgary and Vancouver airports. I was once nicely surprised by an attendant directing me to the back of the plane, where I was able to get off and out in no time at all. The setup is the same as a single ramp, but with a longer corridor paralelling the plane to reach the 'back' door.

The Globe and Mail just recently published an article about (again) WestJet, which was experimenting with boarding procedures and appears to have come to the conclusion that random is best. Apparently they gave their staff free reign (it's a pretty 'folksy' airline) and one of their gate agents tried boarding a plane by sock colour, which worked wonders. Perhaps this is akin to the chaotic, but low-collision traffic patterns one can observe in Asian cities. Keep in mind that WestJet doesn't have business class or any other distinctions. Though why business class passengers would wish to sit first and then be bombarded by a parade of riffraff swinging their coats, bags, and children around on their way to the back of the plane has always mystified me. I generally prefer to wait until the last possible minute (if I can grab a coffee or a beer during this time, so much the better) and not wait in any kind of line at all.

Enjoying the fun...


Posted by: Desmond Bliek on November 8, 2005 5:09 PM

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