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OM in the News: Speeding Up the Airline Boarding Process

January 28, 2014
Barry and Jay at Alaska Airlines

Barry and Jay at Alaska Airlines

Jay and I just returned from a visit to Alaska Airlines headquarters, where we studied the intricacies of operations management at the top-rated U.S. carrier.  One of the many issues we discussed was the speed of boarding passengers onto their flights.

In the past 3 decades, the airplane boarding process has become an increasingly important industry-wide issue for airlines and passengers. Prior to 1970, the average boarding speed of passengers nationwide was 20 passengers per minute. By 1998, this rate had decreased to 9 per minute. The increased costs of checking luggage will continue to play an important role in the time to board, as passengers are going to respond to increasing fees by carrying more bags onto the plane. As a result, the boarding speed may continue to decrease.

When using an average boarding strategy, the difference in boarding times when passengers have 2 carry-on bags compared to zero is almost 60%. Long boarding times impact costs. The total cost of airline delays in 2007 was estimated to be $29 billion in the U.S. alone, with the cost to airlines ($8 billion), the cost to passengers ($17 billion), and the cost from lost demand ($4 billion). This indicates the possibility for large savings for the airlines and passengers with more efficient boarding methods.

Seattle airportSo a recent article by Clarkson University researchers to develop a strategy for boarding flights caught our eyes. The new method, published in the Journal of Air Transport Management (Jan., 2014), assigns airline passengers to a specific seat based on the number of bags they carry, causing luggage to be evenly distributed through the plane. Each row of seats would tend to have a passenger with 2 bags, a passenger with 1 bag and a passenger with no bags. “The new method would save at least several seconds in boarding time and prevent any one area of the plane from becoming overloaded with bags,” says author Prof. John Milne. “Airlines could provide a smoother boarding experience for passengers by utilizing the research.”

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is boarding an OM issue and what control do managers have over the process?

2. What other boarding procedures are in place across the industry?

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