By Kevin Meyer
A couple weeks ago I told you about how Singapore is finding a solution to transit system capacity problems that doesn't require vast investments in trains and buses. They just took the time to dig a bit deeper to better understand the root cause of the problem.
Now we have another opportunity: airlines attempting to reduce the time it takes to board their planes. Unfortunately in this case they are completely missing the mark.
American Airlines undertook a two-year study to try and speed up boarding. The result: The airline has recently rolled out a new strategy—randomized boarding. Travelers without elite status get assigned randomly to boarding groups instead of filing onto planes from back to front.
Now that's an interesting idea, and the study behind it is a little counterintuitive. Randomized boarding is actually proven faster than rear-first and windows-first boarding. Go figure. And of course since this is the 2010's the airlines will find all kinds of ways to create little fees that allow you to circumvent the system – and presumably crumble the model.
If you want to avoid the bedlam and board early, there's a fee for that, of course. Passengers at some airlines, including American, offer the option for about $10. With randomized boarding, some passengers may still want to pay the early boarding fee to ensure they will have plenty of overhead bin space.
Ya, whatever. Asinine fees are not the point of this post. The article goes into all the nuances of the study, various loading strategies, and so on. And misses the obvious solutions.
The first obvious solution I observed while bouncing around Asia last December with several flights on Bangkok Air. Remarkable little airline – impressed me enough to write about them. They were able to load a full A320 in ten (10) minutes. They were also able to serve a full real meal, not a box thrown at you but an actual tray with multiple hot dishes, to a full plane on a 30 minute flight. Really. How'd they do it?
People. There were a few more flight attendants than we typically see. During boarding, which was completely random (I guess they somehow stumbled upon the concept that took American spending millions on consultants to learn?), the attendants efficiently handed people off to other attendants to get them to their seats and settled. A daisy chain of communication and activity that moved incredibly fast. During the meal service those two or three extra attendants dramatically added to the speed and efficiency of serving and clearing the trays. Thirty minutes from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
However there's one other major impediment to rapid boarding that American, or pretty much any U.S. airline for that matter, actively works to promote. Yes, I said promote the impediment – how crazy. It's that absurd checked baggage fee. Sure they make a few bucks, but at what cost? So here we have the cross-section of a typical aircraft:
We have the seats, a tiny amount of space beneath the seats, and a little bit of overhead space. Then of course the rather cavernous baggage space underneath. Guess what has happened with the baggage fees. Yep, utilization of the checked baggage area downstairs has gone down by 47% as everyone tries to carry on their bags and cram them into the overheads. What are the airlines doing? Hiring teams that are trying to fill up that space with cargo, mail, and the like.
Waste, anyone? So the airlines are incenting folks to use the smaller spaces, wasting the larger spaces, and delaying boarding in the process.
I wonder what would happen if the incentive was the reverse – you paid a fee to carry on anything larger than a briefcase or purse. How would that change the boarding process? What is the value of turning a plane around in 30 minutes instead of an hour or two? Returning to the Bangkok Air example, what would be the value, not cost, of two or three additional flight attendants – to the boarding process as well as the customer's flying experience?
What is real value – especially from the perspective of the customer – that will drive more business and thereby more profit? Fees? Comfortable flying? Efficient turnaround?
Who knows. I just know a bunch of airlines are spending millions to try to optimize a process that has been already, increasingly, suboptimized by subverting policies. Smack.