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OM in the News: Speeding Up the Airline Boarding Process

May 26, 2013

airline arrival ratesThe forecast calls for heavy frustration with a 50% chance of innovation at U.S. airports this summer,” writes The Wall Street Journal (May 23,2013). Airport crowds are expected to be the largest in the U.S. since 2008. There’s already concern that budget cuts in TSA overtime will lead to longer security-screening lines. But travelers will find new boarding procedures at both United and American airlines that pack planes faster. The idea is to increase the percent of flights that arrive within 15 minutes of schedule, currently around 76%.

In an effort to get more flying out of planes and crews, a topic we discuss in Chapter 15, United is introducing new boarding lanes at gate areas this summer. Five different boarding groups will line up in different areas, akin to how Southwest lines up customers by groups, so that instead of a crush of people pushing toward the gate, each group will have a designated place to wait. After elite-level customers, the rest of the coach cabin will board window-seat passengers first, then middle seats, and aisle seats last. With the “Wilma” system, as United calls it, seats fill faster because people already seated don’t have to get up as much to let a row mate in. United says Wilma boarding is about 20% faster than boarding from the rear of the plane to the front.

American set its own new change in boarding this month. It joined Alaska Airlines in offering early boarding to customers who don’t have large carry-on bags. American offers Group 2 boarding, right after elite-level frequent fliers, to passengers without overhead-bin luggage. American tested the idea in seven cities earlier this year and found getting people without overhead bin luggage on early sped up boarding time and improved on-time arrival performance.

Discussion questions:

1. Why has Southwest’s management of scheduling been so successful?

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the “Wilma” system?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 20, 2013 3:46 am

    As this blog suggests the airline loading presents some very interesting issues with sundry approaches. The one shown here is only one of many approaches. A variation of this arrangement adds an alternate row variable — passengers board on alternate rows on the opposite side. The idea being that passengers are far enough apart to put luggage in the overhead bins, get organized, and seated.

    Another option is to board the plane back to front.

    At this point we need to remind ourselves that airlines are a service business where the customer is on hand to interact with and complicate any system.

    What are the customer constraints on the three options suggested above?

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