The deliberate inconvenience of airline boarding

If you’ve ever been stuck in the agonizingly slow-moving, confusing queue to board an airplane, you might have found yourself thinking, “There couldn’t be a worse way to manage this circus!”  That’s literally true.  The standard methodology of boarding an airplane – back to front, organized into loose “zones” of several rows apiece – is the least efficient way to do the job.  It has been demonstrated that letting people board at random is actually faster.

Bloomberg Businessweek has a nifty little blood-boiling article on the inefficiency of airline boarding, which emphasizes a dirty little open secret that no one wants to discuss: the airlines have no real incentive to improve the process, and some good reasons to keep it tedious, namely the extra money they can make by selling early-boarding privileges to frustrated passengers.  They’ve also made the problem considerably worse by charging extra for checked bags, giving passengers a strong incentive to carry more luggage onto the plane.  Carry-ons are the quicksand of the airline boarding nightmare, as anyone who has ever watched a tiny old woman try to stuff a grand piano into the overhead bins can attest.

Interestingly, someone actually developed the fastest possible boarding method a few years ago – an astrophysicist named Jason Steffen, who had the idea while he was stuck in line.  Steffen’s method is beautifully simple and logical: board the plane from the window seats inward, rather than back to front, and use alternating rows.  The first boarding group would be all the window seats in odd rows, followed by window seats in even rows, then middle seats in odd rows, etc.  This minimizes the amount of congestion at any given point on the plane, as the passengers in each boarding group are widely separated from each other.  (That’s also the reason random boarding works better than the back-to-front zone method airlines generally use – random selection does a better job of keeping people from plowing into each other than the standard approach, which basically forces them into pile-ups.)

Steffen’s method proved, under testing, to be twice as fast as standard airline boarding.  The airlines aren’t rushing to implement it.  According to Bloomberg Businessweek, none of the major carriers seems interested at all.  Why would they be?