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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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