American Airlines has unveiled plans for a new "simplified" boarding process, to begin on March 1, with passengers prioritised according to nine numbered groups, up from the current four, and with those in the airline's recently launched 'basic economy' class (more on that here) embarking dead last.
Those with priority boarding are split into five groups:
First Class (naturally)
Active duty U.S. military with military I.D.
(Business Class on a 2-class international aircraft)
(Business Class on a 3-class aircraft)
Alaska Airlines MVP® members
Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive cardmembers
Customers who bought Priority boarding
Group 5 (Preferred boarding)
Main Cabin Extra
Eligible AAdvantage® credit cardmembers
Eligible corporate travelers
Then comes the rabble. Passengers falling in the lower half (groups six to eight) have not been specified:
And last up, of course...
See the full outline of the new boarding system here.
Sounds complicated? We think so, but American Airlines disagrees: "The boarding order will be the same, with only minor exceptions. The change is in how we refer to each group on boarding passes and announcements," a company spokesman told MarketWatch.
The perfect way to board a plane
Which is the fastest way to board a plane? Not like American Airlines. According to various studies, from sources as varied as Northwestern University in Illinois and the Discovery Channel's TV series MythBusters, a simple new approach could save airlines - and passengers - up to 20 minutes of runway faffing on every return flight.
Instead of getting passengers to board according to their row number, they should board according to their column. Those with a window seat first, followed by those in the middle and, finally, those in the aisle. The "WilMA" method, as it has been dubbed - window, middle, aisle - could cut boarding times by more than 35 per cent, according to Northwestern. Similar savings could be made if WilMA is used to disembark the plane, too, it said.
MythBusters, which devoted almost an entire show to the thorny problem, tested six options using a replica of an aircraft interior and 173 willing volunteers. To simulate reality, five per cent of passengers were asked to behave "problematically" - sitting in the wrong seat, wasting time folding up their coat in the aisle, that sort of thing.
The regular method, with business class getting on first and then everyone else boarding in zones, starting at the back and moving to the front, took a whopping 24 minutes and 29 seconds. WilMA took just 14 minutes and 55 seconds, even when premium passengers were still permitted to board first. Volunteers were also asked to give each method a "satisfaction" score, and WilMA scored far higher than the standard boarding technique.
Remarkably, the method currently favoured by airlines was shown to be far slower than simply letting everyone on board at once to find their own assigned seats (17 minutes and 15 minutes).
Quickest of all, however, was allowing passengers to board all at once and to choose their own seats - a method once favoured by Ryanair but abandoned in 2014 as part of its "family-friendly" facelift.
So why don't airlines take heed? For one, passengers who like to take advantage of speedy boarding - and airlines who like to take advantage of charging them for the privilege - would be scuppered. But the most glaringly obvious reason is that groups and families would - albeit temporarily - be split up. As a family will typically share a row of seats, mum in the window seat would need to leave behind everyone else to take her place, while little Jimmy in the middle would be expected to find his seat all on his own.
How else could airlines speed things up? Using both front and rear doors would be a start. Ryanair is one airline to do so as a matter of policy.
An innovative option was introduced by Delta last year. Its "Early Valet" service sees staff preload passengers' hand luggage above their allotted seats prior to boarding and is available on selected routes.
Research has suggested that baggage is the biggest factor when it comes to rapid boarding, while average boarding speeds have slowed from 20 passengers per minute in the 1960s to nine per minute in 1998 as use of hand luggage increased due to fees for checking bags.
Delta's service is not free, of course, which makes you wonder whether it was really devised with speedy boarding in mind.
The best option of all, according to Dr R. John Milne, of Clarkson University in New York, and set out in the Journal of Air Transport Management, would be for passengers with the most luggage to be given window seats and kept as far apart as possible, before boarding in a carefully choreographed order.
Window seat passengers in odd numbered seats on one side of the plane would board first, followed by those in even numbered seats, or vice versa. The process would be repeated for window seats on the other side of the cabin, then for middle seats and aisle seats in the same manner.
OK, that sounds about as complicated as American's new system.