Boarding procedures are among the least efficient activities in the entire civil aviation industry. The process is often chaotic and the strategies chosen by passengers vary widely, from those who choose to wait in line before the door is even opened, those who wait until the last moment, and those who try to avoid part of the journey. waiting while trying to slip into the queue of those with tickets for priority boarding. Confusion at the boarding gate is then usually reflected on board by a new queue before arriving at your seat, often due to the increasingly frequent use of cabin baggage which must be placed in the upper compartments. This inefficiency costs millions of euros each year to airlines, which have been studying alternative systems for decades, with rarely satisfactory results.
To keep a plane in a parking area or at the gate, an airline generally has to pay the airport, so the shorter the layover, the lower the cost, not to mention that shorter layovers allow for more of flights and consequently greater exploitation of the same aircraft. . A more efficient boarding system would therefore help reduce costs, but airlines have to deal with many other variables, starting with safety regulations for passengers and of course for their staff.
Priority boarding policies for families with young children and people with disabilities are an additional variable to consider, as are people paying more to board early, when there is less confusion. All of these factors explain at least in part why airlines are struggling to introduce new solutions to reduce queues and save time at the gate and in the aircraft aisle.
The most widespread system today remains the “classic” system, with boarding starting with passengers with priority tickets, for example if they are in first class or business class (or if they have special tickets in the case of low cost airlines, where there are (no, they are actually different classes), followed by all the others. Sometimes this second phase is managed by dividing passengers into groups based on the sector they will occupy, but this is not always the case. For boarding large capacity aircraft, such as those making transcontinental connections, passengers are divided into groups and subgroups with greater precision, given that boarding times are even longer both due to of the number of people as well as the technical times of preparing the plane. .
Aside from low-cost airlines, almost all airlines are at some point experimenting with a different system, perhaps at a number of airports, to test alternative methods. Recently, the American United Airlines he dusted it off “WILMA”, one of the most well-known and discussed systems in the aircraft filling sector. The name is an acronym of the English words “window”, “middle” and “aisle” (respectively “window”, “center” and “corridor”): the L serves no purpose, only to give a more recognizable name to the system . ) and therefore requires passengers to be boarded according to their place: first all those seated at the window, then those in the central seat and finally the people having the seat facing the aisle.
Those who support “WILMA” say the system helps speed up boarding times because it reduces the number of people who stand in line on the plane waiting to let those who have a seat in a different position in the same row. . Critics, however, say the system doesn’t always work, because all it takes is someone being slow to put their luggage in the overhead bin or finding their seat and the whole queue is blocked anyway, without improving things much. .
In reality, few airlines use “WILMA” in an orthodox way, because they still need to determine who owns certain tickets and has the right to board first or who simply has an interest in doing so first, for example family groups. United Airlines lets families with young children and disabled passengers board first, then calls the different groups. The first is that of passengers with first class tickets and frequent flyer, the second is that of other people with special tickets. Only at this point is the third group called, which includes those seated near the window, followed by the fourth (middle seat) and fifth (aisle seat).
According to the airline, this hybrid solution allows it to reduce boarding times for larger groups of passengers, while ensuring faster boarding for everyone else. The second boarding phase is, however, quite chaotic, especially because several rows of the plane are already partially full and there will therefore always be someone in the middle seat who will have to get up to seat those at the window. , or someone in the aisle who will have to move to make way for those seated in the other seats in the row.
Among those studying the most efficient way to fill planes, the American airline Southwest is often cited, which has followed a approach very different from most competitors. On Southwest flights, seats are not assigned, so each person who boards chooses where to sit based on their preferences and of course which seats are still available. At check-in, each passenger is assigned a group (A, B or C) and a number, both of which are indicated on the boarding pass.
When the door opens, group A is called first and passengers are asked to line up in the sequence of numbers: those with B15, for example, should line up after B14 and before B16. In the waiting area, signs every five numbers tell you more or less at what point in the queue you should join, and you can then ask those in front and behind to check the number in order to respect ascending numerical order.
The operation is carried out first for all the people of group A, then for those of group B and finally of C. While the passengers of A board the plane in an orderly manner, those of B begin to make the queue and finally it’s the turn of those with C, waiting for those in group B to start boarding the plane. This way, entry on board is more orderly and being able to choose your seat simplifies things, Southwest explains, because no one has to look for theirs. However, exceptions are made for families with young children or for people with disabilities.
Southwest has been using this system for almost ten years and opinions on its usefulness are quite polarized among passengers: some find it more convenient, others simply hate it. The most frequent complaints concern the difficulty of having better seats than others and of being able to know in advance where on the plane you can travel: letters and numbers are assigned depending on when the flight takes place. recording, which manages to do so. he gets you the first places in the queue first and can therefore choose virtually any seat when you board.
The method adopted by Southwest allows the plane to be filled with relative speed, mainly because it allows boarding in a more orderly manner thanks to the three-group system and the fact that people tend to prefer the front part of the plane. plane, generally less noisy than the rear one, where you can hear the engines more. The airline has also hired a specialist in self-organizing systems theory, specifically to study how passengers are managed autonomously and see if the current strategy can be improved in some way.
Jason Steffen believes that Southwest’s system is slightly better than WILMA’s, but still worse than the method he developed more than a decade ago. Steffen is an astrophysicist from Chicago, but he became passionate about the problematic filling of airliners, becoming one of the most cited experts in trade magazines, newspapers and television. In 2011 he published in the magazine Journal of Air Transport Management their own solution, only to find with dismay in subsequent years that no airline had paid much attention to it.
His proposal was to use a more advanced version of WILMA, first placing passengers with window seats on one side of the plane, but every other row, followed by passengers with window seats, on the opposite side, always every other row; after which the process is repeated with the lines that were skipped. The same operation is then carried out for the central seats and finally for those located along the aisle. We always start from the bottom of the plane, or in any case from the point farthest from the entrance if boarding is carried out from several doors of the plane.
According to Steffen, the system allows passengers who need to organize themselves before sitting down, for example by storing their luggage, to be spaced further apart in the aisle and to be less in the way. Since these are passengers with the same type of seats, but in different rows, there is no risk that they will have to move to allow others to squeeze into their row of seats .
For his research , Steffen had also simulated the filling of a Boeing 757 with a single aisle and 12 rows of seats, with the classic division of three rows on the left and three on the right. 72 people took part in the test, with hand luggage and bags. The method was then compared to boarding grouped according to cabin sectors and to random boarding (essentially in chaos). The sector system had proven to be the slowest, taking seven minutes, while Steffen’s had taken half that time.
Since then, Steffen has carried out various simulations to compare his system to others, more orthodox or creative, depending on the case. However, his proposal never really convinced the airlines, perhaps because it would still involve a very precise and somewhat more complex pre-screening at the gate than that of Southwest, which is not limited by the number of seats already assigned on board. It would also be complicated to manage all the exceptions, particularly in the case of planes divided into classes and which offer different types of tickets.
Low-cost airlines are perhaps most interested in finding more efficient boarding systems, given that keeping a plane at the airport is expensive and they tend to maximize the commitment of each plane. To save a few minutes, however, they would have to give up the rather convoluted rates that they have developed over time, for example billing separately for hand luggage to be taken into the cabin, the choice of seat and boarding priority, while keeping a single class.