22 FEB 2018: Getting on is certainly the worst. Much as we all love to bicker about eroding standards of inflight service, the worst part of flying is surely what passengers have to endure to get into their seats.  

We'll put all the long lines and other joys of CATSA and TSA procedures on one side for now: They are a sad consequence of our insecure world and there's little that airlines can do to influence that part of the airport experience. But why pray tell, given all the technological advances airlines have adopted in the last 20 years - has no single carrier managed to come up with a boarding process that consistently works?

Last week I took a day trip from New York to Miami on a major US carrier and couldn't believe the chaos I witnessed at the gates. My chosen carrier's 'zone' boarding process (for want of a better word) resulted in a mosh pit-like bunfight!

Why? Several reasons:

1) as simple as the zone system might seem, people don't understand it, and

2) even if they do, they mostly choose to ignore it,

3) to be in the pole position when their zone is called, pax stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the jet way entrance and, last but not least,

4) there are always Zone F cheaters who, feigning stupidity, join in with the Zone A boarders and all too frequently, clearly get away with it!

And then, after all the premium and high mileage groups had been called, there came the final put-down - a process negating, "We are now boarding all remaining Zones." They might just as well have announced, "Okay folks, start your engines. It's now every man for himself."

If you're thinking, "the zone thing really isn't that hard to grasp" you're correct but for those once-a-year fliers, the hard-of-hearing, the English is not their first language, or the elderly aunt types, this is a different kettle of fish. Just knowing to look for that boarding group/zone number or letter (or both) on your boarding pass is one thing - finding it can be another.

So what is the best - or maybe that's 'least worst' - boarding process?

Air Canada and WestJet both use the zone process, albeit both appear to be not much more than refined versions of the old back to front system. WestJet's website has zero information about their zone boarding process and after a 24-minute wait to get through to the call center the agent I spoke to knew very little about it either.

A couple of years ago the Discovery Channel show, Mythbusters did a whole investigative segment on to the topic. In a hangar, they laid out a mock 173-seat aircraft cabin (complete with overhead bins to fight over), staffed it with real cabin crew and tried a whole slew of boarding techniques. They soon determined that the once ubiquitous, easy to understand, back-to-front method is actually the least efficient and far from popular. This had an average boarding time of 24.5 minutes and a passenger satisfaction rating of 19.

The most efficient procedure turned out to be the one currently used by only one major carrier - United. Known as the "WILMA" (window-middle-aisle) method, this has window-seated passengers boarding first, followed by those in middle seats and then aisle seats. This took only 15 minutes to complete and scored a high 105 rating.

The problem here is that no matter what such tests might show with simulated boarding, in real life the human factor can always be relied upon to screw it up. There are the gate agents who regularly allow obviously oversize bags to get into the cabin causing fights and frustration when they have to be gate checked. There are the cabin-crew members who stand idly by as passengers headed to the rear seats casually load their carry-on into front-end bins. There are those passengers who think nothing of taking several minutes to fold a jacket while blocking all aisle traffic in the process … and so on and so on.

But the biggest single barrier to a smooth boarding experience is unquestionably undersize overhead bins and oversize carry-ons. Bins and carry-on have been around forever but with the introduction of checked baggage fees, carriers simultaneously created a disincentive to check bags and an incentive to carry ever bigger bags on board. Ooops!

Notwithstanding the Mythbusters findings however, Southwest has always had by far and away the simplest of boarding system: Based on time of check-in (online, up to 24 hours in advance) pax are assigned their slot and then follow the instructions, "General boarding … Look at your boarding pass to find your assigned boarding group (A, B, or C) and boarding position (1 - 60). When your group is called, stand by the column with your number on it until it's your turn to board." Once on board it's open seating - see an unoccupied seat you like and it's yours.

Are there fights for the overhead space? Well not very often as Southwest is the only major carrier in North America that still doesn't have fees for checked bags - the first two are free of charge. While many industry experts argue this means the airline is leaving a lot of revenue on the table, Southwest just happens to be the industry's most consistently profitable carrier - now 45 consecutive years and counting.

So, an established and easy boarding process, fewer carry-on bags, huge customer loyalty, consistent profitability: Coincidence? You be the judge.


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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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