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OM in the News: Is Boarding the Most Annoying Airline Delay?

November 2, 2011

I guess the answer is yes, given that yesterday’s New York Times (Nov. 1, 2011) ran a front page article on the woes of airline boarding.  Airlines have been complicating the process of boarding  for decades, writes the Times. First travelers have to be sorted by priority: 1st class, frequent flyers, elite cardholders, military in uniform, families with kids, and so on. Then there is the issue of seats  for those who paid priority boarding fees, the matter of more roll-ons in the aisle from checked-baggage fees, and of course,  the fact that planes are fuller. Boarding time has actually doubled— and it now takes 30-40 minutes to board 140 passengers, up from 15 minutes about 20 years ago.

 Operations scheduling techniques (Ch.15) have been used by every airline to find creative solutions to speed boarding. Spirit Airlines says the answer is to charge $20-$40 per carry-on bag. This “stress-free” boarding saves 6 minutes on average. American Airlines switched a few months ago to boarding passengers earlier who pay $9-$19 extra (and hence find a space for their bag). The rest of the passengers are brought in as 3 groups, sorted out in a spread throughout the plane. This method has cut boarding by 4-5 minutes.

US Airways hired ASU profs to develop a “reverse pyramid” to save time. Passengers with window seats in the back board first. Then, gradually, passengers are brought on to the front of the plane in a staggered pattern. Southwest, which can board its planes in 15 minutes, claims the root of delays is the practice of assigning seat numbers. So it assigns passengers to one of 3 boarding groups.

The conflict: all the extra fees for early boarding and baggage will add $12.5 billion to the bottom  line of US airlines this  year, up 87%  from last year.

Discussion questions:

1. Research has shown that “back-to-front” boarding is the slowest method. Why is it still used?

2. How else can OM help solve this problem?

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 2, 2011 2:47 pm

    It is no mystery why travelers bring so much carry-on. Airlines are notorious for losing luggage, and the wait to get checked luggage is getting longer as fewer flights carry more people. Business travelers are particularly at the mercy of careless baggage handling. I once had a bag stolen/lost/whatever while on an extended trip to both my college class’s twenty fifth reunion (where I was the keynote speaker) and an additional trip to do a training session for a major, high-end hotel chain. I had to go to J.C. Penney to buy some terrible-fitting, and geek-looking clothes to speak at my reunion – which was one of those classic nightmares, and then had to call Men’s Warehouse (“You” like the way we make you look”) in Miami, so they could send my sizes to a store in Philadelphia. My father picked up a set of new clothes from the Philly Men’s Warehouse, and delivered it to the airport for me as I had a change-over on my way to Denver. Of course, I did not check the new clothes, but instead, bought a new set of carry-on bags at the airport and packed it all into them. When the airlines balked at me having too many carry-ons, I gate-checked one. By the way, gate-checking luggage is a great way to “game” the system.

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