Maybe you don’t think you and your favorite airline agree on anything: on how much room an adult human requires, on what counts as food, or on how much it should cost for a soothing, tiny bottle of wine. But surely you agree on at least one point: People take way too long getting to their seats.
For passengers, the cumbersome boarding process—watching people insist that yes, this bag will fit in the overhead bin, it has before!—means more time spent jammed in a too-small seat. For airlines, it means lost revenue. In an industry with tight profit margins, every moment a plane spends on the tarmac is time it’s not making money.
This is the concept known as turnaround time: how long it takes an airline to get the people and luggage off a plane that has just landed, to clean, refuel, and restock it, then get a new load of people and bags in. It’s a complex dance, says Martin Rottler, a lecturer at The Ohio State University's Center for Aviation Studies. But in this ballet, humanity proves difficult to choreograph. “The loading of passengers is one of those clunky dancers in the background.”
And so every airline spends a lot of time cooking up and testing new ways to funnel the masses of people and roller bags into airplanes.
The latest bid comes from United, which is in the midst of a month-long test at Los Angeles International Airport. Usually, United puts its five groups of passengers in five parallel lines, and people can queue up as early as they like. Now, it will use just two lines for all five groups. Group one will go in one, group two in the other. Once they’re all safely lodged in the plane, the gate agents will have the next three groups line up, one at a time, in the second lane. Any latecomers in the already called groups can use the first lane. As before, those groups will divide passengers not by row, but by seat type: window people go first, then middle and aisle folks. And as always, everybody with any sort of priority status will go first. The goal is to keep everyone moving, letting people near the end of the line stay seated for longer, and minimize crowding around the gate that makes everything more of a pain. To summarize: It's still five groups, but instead of five lines, you get two.
Whatever United finds, it won’t be the perfect system. The ideal setup is likely closer to that devised by astrophysicist Jason Steffen, a rather convoluted system that sends passengers into the plane in a precise order. First up are the window seat passengers on the right side of the plane, starting with the last row, then the third to last row, fifth to last, and so on. Then you do the same for the left window seats. Then for the middle on the right, and the middle on the left, then the aisles. By this point, every other row is full. Then you repeat the process, filling in the empty half. This staggered setup may be efficient—it gives everyone space and time to get their bag in bin and settle in their seat—but it’s folly to expect passengers to board in an exact order, especially one that looks random and (temporarily) separates families.
In the realm of systems you might have experienced, the fastest may be Southwest’s model: Without assigned seats, people can put their bag and their rear end wherever they find a spot, then get out of the way of others trying to do the same.
But Southwest’s setup won't work for most carriers. “Every airline has its own process to maximize time in air and minimize time on ground, within the reality of the product that they sell,” says Rottler. That second part is key: Southwest’s budget status lets it get away without the luxury of assigned seats. But United and airlines like it—American and Delta, especially—operate hierarchies complex enough to baffle the court of King Louis XIV. These include not just a range of classes, but frequent flyer levels, credit card statuses, people who pay extra to board early, passengers who need assistance, passengers with young kids, servicemembers, and more.
“The reality of these airlines is that they offer different levels of boarding for different perks,” Rottler says. Those are vital tools for the airlines to do other important things, like make money off credit cards, reward frequent customers, and raise fares for benefits like early boarding. (Because if boarding can't be pleasant, you might as well make money by letting people game the system.)
One easy way to speed up the boarding process would be to let people check bags for free, cutting the inclination to stuff everything into a slightly too-big carry-on that will need jamming into an overhead bin. Sounds great, until you consider that US carriers made $4.2 billion in checked bag fees in 2016.
The question for the airlines, then, is not how to get everyone onto a plane as quickly as possible. It’s how to get everyone onto a plane as quickly as possible while still charging them extra for bags, doting on the regular customers, and maintaining the system that, like all class structures, serves whoever built it.