An unlikely idea for improving airline boarding – help us!

(Inspired by recent experiences and an Economist Gulliver blog post )

I’ve regularly experienced Southwest boarding passengers in 10-15 minutes with no assigned seating. And I’ve regularly experienced large carriers like United that board by rows taking 30-45 minutes. Why? Bags travel free on Southwest so there’s less demand for overhead space. And as others have noted, unassigned is faster and surprisingly better than assigned seating. I’ve never had a bad seat on Southwest with no status, whereas unless I’m Gold status (50K miles/year) or above on a large carrier, getting a good seat is a source of stress, which is only multiplied if you’re travelling with a family – on 5 of 5 recent trips our booking has been split by the airline despite our requests to keep them combined.

On airlines like United, first class and then all the myriad tiers of frequent fliers board, often filling all the overhead space and then having to swim upstream back to front of plane as the remaining non-frequent fliers try to get to back of plane, and discover there is no space for their bags and then they have to swim upstream to check their bags. The last minute upgrades to First Class and serving of drinks and hanging of jackets add additional delays to the boarding process (although the latter two are not an issue on 757s and larger where the “lower classes” don’t have to walk through First to get to their seats).

On deplaning, the problem is reversed as frequent fliers now have to go towards the back of the plane to retrieve their bags against the stream of the deplaning passengers. If you’re a frequent flier, you’re only getting on the plane early to make sure you can get your bag in the overhead near where you are sitting. The whole process is inefficient and unpleasant for everyone.

Idea: (If they don’t want to follow the superior Southwest model, or won’t make the overhead storage bigger and/or enforce a smaller overhead bag) Could baggage handlers load the carry on bag into the overheads near the assigned seats and gate check the bags if they don’t fit? Then board from the back to the front, and from the windows to the aisles. Not a solution for late arriving aircraft and will add tangible costs of extra labor vs. intangibles of delays. But would be a nice service improvement.

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