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OM in the News: Boarding Airplanes and Operations Management

March 13, 2017

Delta is testing new boarding procedures to line people up in an orderly way instead of the pack seen at this boarding gate in Atlanta

One of the thorniest operations management problems in air travel is stumping carriers: How best to board a plane? “Boarding has gotten slower and far more stressful,” writes The Wall Street Journal (March 2, 2017). Airlines are trying to end the mob mentality at boarding gates, where passengers crowd the gate, sometimes pushing and blocking the way for people who have been called to board.

Delta is testing new boarding lanes and monitors in gate areas that bring more order to boarding turbulence and shave 30-60 seconds off a flight. That’s a huge saving for an airline with thousands of flights scheduled daily. “All the studies say the quickest boarding process is just open the door and let ‘em go, and people just pressure one another,” says Delta’s VP. “But it’s not a very good customer experience.” Passengers say airlines created the problem with checked-baggage fees that lead people to carry on more.

The old method of back-to-front boarding by row number was standard for decades but proved slow. Same with boarding passengers in window seats first, then middle, then aisles seats. Random turns out to be a better way to single-file travelers to their seats. Multiple people in the line reach their rows at the same time. But random fell victim to privilege. Multiple levels of elite status get priority. (70-80% of passengers on a flight may have elite status.)

American’s OM staff recently spent time observing Southwest’s boarding system, generally considered fastest. Southwest assigns each passenger a number, then lines everyone up in sequence. Passengers know where and when to stand. They have incentive to move quickly to pick an open seat. “It’s pretty clear Southwest does it best,” says a UNLV expert on planetary systems who got curious about earthbound airplane boarding systems and conducted a study looking for an ideal solution. (His answer: Board 10 passengers at a time in alternating rows.)

Classroom discussion questions:

1.What OM techniques can be used to study this problem?

2. What other suggestions do your students have?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. fred van bennekom permalink
    March 13, 2017 1:03 pm

    Having boarded lots of planes, typically as an early boarder so i get to watch the “fun,” I have my own theories. The bottleneck is clearly the overhead bins. If we think of the bins as work stations, the goal should be to maximize the utilization of (unfilled) overhead bins. That’s why random works. Someone standing in the aisle waiting for the guy in row 33 to get done jamming his luggage overhead will look at the empty row 24 where he’s standing and just throw his bags into the bin that’s right there and sit. How with assigned seating — a customer service constraint — can that be approximated? Alternate rows makes sense, but could airlines when they call a group, which is basically a block of rows, have people in that block board in reverse row number? Good luck!

  2. March 14, 2017 5:54 pm

    Fred,
    Excellent OM slant on the problem! Not a simple problem–especially with all the “priority” groups created by airlines.

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