OM in the News: Boarding Airplanes and Operations Management
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?