American Airlines changes boarding procedure based on how econs behave and “complete chaos” follows

American Airlines recently changed its boarding process from one that fills the plane from back-to-front to one that “randomly” assigns boarding groups to people sitting in different rows.

“You definitely will not have 24 people in four rows boarding at the same time,” said Scott Santoro, director of airport consulting for American Airlines. He said studies have shown that the random seating process reduces boarding times 5% to 10%.

The Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants disagrees. It contends the process has created “complete chaos” among passengers, forcing attendants to spend more time preparing the plane for takeoff. The attendants are irked, it says, because they are not paid for the extra time needed to load the plane.

One of the major studies supporting a change in boarding procedures is a 2008 article published in the Journal of Air Transport Management. There is actually quite a lot of sophisticated modeling of airplane boarding with various strategies like “Rotating Zone,” “Reverse Pyramid,” and “Flying Carpet.” (Background on all of them is here). The research is based on mathematical simulations in which people are assumed to behave like Econs. Assuming airline customers eventually learned about the purpose for random boarding and some of the early chaos died down, it’s still not clear it’s the right strategy.

“Our data confirms that pure random boarding is faster,” said Sandy Stelling, Alaska Airlines’ managing director of airport services. “However, we determined the negative impact, measured by our customers — elite Mileage Plan members and non-elites alike — was not worth the small gain in time.”

Airplane boarding isn’t quite as elegant as the models make it.


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  • Pginna

    Did AA bother to study how other airlines did it–like Southwest? Southwest has open seating, but puts passengers in a strictly numerical queue before boarding. When boarding starts, people get onto the plane quickly, but because the seating is open, you don’t have “24 people in four rows” jostling together. This has always seemed the fairest, most sensible, and in my experience, quickest way to handle boarding. It obviously works for Southwest, the most profitable airline in the business. 

  • Nosybear

    By allowing all these “classes” to board early and by assigning seats, American essentially killed off the benefits of random boarding.  Observing SWA boarding, the plane tends to fill front to back, outside in.  But all these seats are likely taken by the “premium” passengers in the American model, leaving a scattering of “obstacles” to random boarding.  So it isn’t random at all.  On Southwest you can pay for or earn an earlier position in the queue but the seating is still the same, random.  That’s where American lost out.

  • Wilcox Wellness

    Just flew AA in the last week.  Was thinking about this very issue as I waited to board, usually waiting until the last possible second to avoid the hurrying to wait design that is the result of their process. 
    So they reportedly save time (I question their study findings) in spite of the fact that boarding passengers repeatedly have to wait in the aisle while seated passengers must get up from their aisle or middle seat to allow the window seat passenger access to their seat.  

  • Brian R

    A couple of comments below about Southwest – and yes their boarding process is better but as a frequent flyer “elite” in both American and United, I can assure you that I go out of my way to fly with them because I can guarantee that I get a “good” seat and that there is room in the overhead for my bag.  Southwest is hands down the best airline to fly if you don’t care about status, but if United or American did away with “premium” seating for the 1K’s and Platinum Exec’s they would lose a whole ton of business.  I wonder what would happen if they asked the premier’s not to board first, but guaranteed them overhead space at their seat – most of the premium passengers I talk to board early for that reason alone……

  • Steve Bennett

    I wonder if it’s possible to educate people to board faster. Infrequent fliers seem to arrive at their row, and then stand around in the aisle for a long time, oblivious to the queue forming behind them.

    You can imagine all kinds of faster boarding procedures: all window seats go first, and just sit down. Then middle seats. Now, aisle seats board, take items passed by the first two groups of passengers, plus their own, stick them in the overhead compartments, then sit.

    But I guess educating infrequent travellers is too hard.

  • HoldUp

    Remember when people just boarded a plane without any of this “I’m more important than you so I go first” garbage? It was so much simpler. I dont do re-education.

  • Beverly Tan