Faster Airline Boarding: Looking at Solutions

November 20, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – My recent post about slow airplane boarding saw nearly 1,000 reader comments, making it the most-discussed article I’ve posted. It was a good reminder that air travel is a topic that people have strong feelings about, and that this is a conversation worth having. Few industries have as much real-time access to customer feedback as we do in the airlines. As in any industry, the companies that listen best and respond to customers will win in the end.

So I’d like to take some time to respond to many of the suggestions readers had about how to speed up airplane boarding. The good news is that this goal makes sense for everyone involved. Airplanes don’t make money on the ground; in fact, every minute of ground time is pure cost, so airlines have plenty of incentive to shorten the boarding period and reduce “turn times.”

As someone who cares about the industry, and JetBlue in particular, I enjoyed the comments, and found many of them insightful. Approximately one in three of the comments on the earlier post suggested an idea to help speed up boarding. Of those,

37% suggested stronger enforcement of current policies, especially boarding in order (no line-jumpers) and ensuring that people don’t carry on bags that are too large. “This will stop people from bringing two or even three bags each, with one bag sometimes taking up almost an entire overhead bin,” said reader Randall Twitchell of Chicago.

32% suggested flipping the bag fee: make all checked bags free, and charge for carry-ons, to give people a reason to keep more bags out of the cabin. “I’d suggest allowing a small personal bag for free … and charging for the second and/or larger item,” wrote Jorge Azevedo, also of Chicago.

15% suggested boarding and deplaning from both front and rear doors (“dual-door boarding”). “To me it’s simple math: two doors are twice as fast as one,” said reader Sheldon Lang.

15% suggested changing the design of the aircraft or gate. For example, designing DeLorean-type doors on the side of the aircraft that open at your row, or carry-on stowage below the seat, not overhead. Redesigning the gate area to adapt to the plane’s layout was a popular idea in this category. “Modifying the gates to allow dual exiting would be a one-time airport expense that could drastically increase gate turn time,” wrote Charles Gillis of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area.

14% suggested getting rid of overhead bins altogether and only allowing carryon bags that fit under the seat in front of you. “Bags under your seat or in the hold. That simple,” wrote Jeff Luth of Scottsdale.

Some of these alternatives are more realistic in the near term than others – changing plane or airport design may be an option for the future, but it doesn’t get us out of the current jam. I would like to respond, however, to three of the most popular suggestions – enforcement, bag fees, and dual-door boarding.

The most popular idea, strict enforcement of airlines’ existing boarding policies, would indeed speed up the boarding process. The most visible violations of the carry-on policy are, a) bringing on more than two bags and b) bringing on bags that are too big for the overhead, both of which can result in more delays when passengers are required to gate check the bags.

Last year, JetBlue conducted a study of carry-on bags, and found that around 8% of our customers brought more than one personal and one carry on bag (1+1) onto the plane. Around 4% of our customers brought on a bag that was larger than the 22-inch limit. That may be a small number in the grand scheme, but all those slowdowns add up, especially if they occur on the first flight of the day. If early flights don’t depart on time, those aircraft can be behind for the rest of the day.

So in June of this year, we initiated a program to more strictly enforce the 1+1 rule. It’s already helping: our flight crews can now dedicate more time to helping customers board, rather than policing bags. This speeds up the departure process.

The second-most popular idea, reversing bag fees, is a different matter. Making checked bags free and charging for carry-on bags would encourage people to check items they don’t really need on board. While this approach could speed up boarding, it might not be the most customer-friendly option: Most people I know who travel often pride themselves on going for two or three days with a single carry-on bag. And, as many commenters noted, pressure to check more bags would mean longer baggage claim waits on the tail end of the trip. Any gains in boarding speed, then, would come at the cost of standing around waiting for checked bags after you deplane – a point at which most of us are eager to get out of the airport.

For that reason, it’s not the right approach for JetBlue. We value customer experience as much as our passengers do, and we think charging for carry-ons would not mean an overall improvement to the flying experience.

Dual-door boarding and deplaning is also of interest to us. This is a no-brainer in cities that have climates that permit year-round dual door deplaning. Of JetBlue’s eighty destinations, about twenty deplane via two doors on a regular basis, and fifteen more do it when weather permits. Building permanent or semi-permanent walkway structures on the ramp would increase our ability to do rear-door boarding and deplaning, but it would require ramp space that is currently used for baggage and aircraft servicing. Still, we hear you, and we want to utilize this option more often.

Ultimately, however, the source of much of this boarding angst still comes from the trend of charging passengers for checked bags, as I wrote in the earlier post. Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, a tough fighter on behalf of consumers, agrees it’s a rethinking of industry-wide bag fee policies, not complex new boarding schemes, that will speed up takeoffs everywhere.

By Joel Peterson