Monday, July 14, 2008

Boarding South-Western: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

It long ago occurred to me that one way of making the process of getting on an airplane easier would be to line up the passengers in advance in the inverse order of their seats numbers (assuming you board from the front) then march them aboard. That way the passenger in seat 25 wouldn't have to wait while the passenger in seat six put his bag up. For a fancier version, one might do it by number and letter--first line up everyone with a window seat, march them in, then everyone with a middle seat, then aisle seats.

I was pleasantly suprised a few days ago, preparing to board a South-Western flight, to find that they were indeed lining passengers up in order. Indeed, they were doing it in three successive groups--A, B, C. I assumed that someone else had finally gotten the same idea I had and implemented it.

Until I realized that the number on the boarding pass had nothing to do with where you sat, since the flight was open seating--no preassigned seats.

22 Comments:

At 1:05 PM, July 14, 2008, Blogger Rick said...

Yup - SW boards in groups ordered by when you got your boarding pass. Most folks I know set their phone to remind them to log in 23 hours and 59 minutes before their flight to get into group A.

Otoh, United yesterday did board people by groups that were windows, then middles, then aisles. With the announced caveat that if you were traveling with someone else who is in an earlier group, you should feel free to board with them.

 
At 1:17 PM, July 14, 2008, Anonymous Seth Breidbart said...

At least one airline does a combination: the groups are the last few rows, plus the window seats in the rows just ahead.

It isn't clear how much this really helps; one thing that once did make boarding a lot faster was a flight attendant refusing to let people put stuff in overhead bins not near their seats.

 
At 8:47 PM, July 14, 2008, OpenID imaginarypolitics said...

It might not be a bad idea, because it means that there are smaller groups of people in the aisles trying to stuff their bags in the over head compartment and the fact that the group assignments are random actually helps. On the other hand, you second suggestion (windows first etc..) doesn't work because suppose the guy in row 15 is ahead of the guy in row 16, then the row 16 guy cannot move up until the row 15 guy has put his bag away.

 
At 11:36 PM, July 14, 2008, Anonymous RL said...

Isn't the more interesting question, David, why this idea (which, you must admit, is obvious), isn't put into practice by companies running at horrible loses who, you'd think, would be desperate to increase efficiency?

I imagine the answer is that it's like herding cats. Some people show up late. Other people don't hear their seat call...probably more efficient in theory than practice (much like socialism).

But perhaps you have other musings...

 
At 12:04 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Jadagul said...

rl: I'm pretty sure that's it. Most airlines make an attempt to do something at least sort of like this; that's what all the 'group seven' stuff while boarding is about. But most people don't board as soon as they're supposed to. In fact, the main reason I like reserved seating is that it means I can hang out in the terminal until last call for boarding, which is much more pleasant. Similarly, I always hated Southwest because you had to stand in line long before boarding started to get a decent seat; the new rules with each person assigned a number are to get around that.

Incidentally, Southwest's lack of assigned seating is part of what makes it one of the most efficient airlines in the country; people can't do the whole waiting-until-the-last-minute-to-board thing.

 
At 8:51 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Tristan said...

I was most surprised when I flew Czech Airlines - they actually boarded the back of the plane first (after business and first class).

Usually when I fly they board in groups starting at the front - which is rather stupid.

I've also come across boarding window first, but that's a pain since it splits up people sitting next to each other...

 
At 8:52 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Simon said...

I've heard that row based seating is actually slower than random seating, while the fastest technique is to board the window seats first, then middle, then aisles. I presume the airlines don't use this because they don't want to force people traveling together to board at seperate times.

 
At 10:13 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

"On the other hand, you second suggestion (windows first etc..) doesn't work because suppose the guy in row 15 is ahead of the guy in row 16"

Which is why my second suggestion was:

"For a fancier version, one might do it by number and letter"

 
At 8:53 PM, July 15, 2008, OpenID imaginarypolitics said...

Oops, I misread the post.

 
At 6:39 PM, July 17, 2008, Blogger Jim Lippard said...

U.S. Airways has done a lot of work on boarding algorithms, as reported in this 2006 Wired article.

 
At 11:09 PM, July 17, 2008, Blogger Mike Huben said...

I do think it funny that a guy who'd so concerned with freedom thinks of the most centrally controlled, Procrustean solution possible, because it is "easier".

About the only thing funnier would be a proposal to pay the passengers by how fast they are individually seated, or penalize the slowest.

 
At 4:04 PM, July 19, 2008, Blogger Gil said...

As long as many people are stupid, stubborn, or slow, none of these "efficient" boarding schemes will work very well. Many will not comply and it won't be enforced because it's not worth it.

What might work would be to redesign the planes to allow people to stow their carry-on from within the row, rather than in the aisle where they're obstructing others. Maybe you'd get the space above your seat, below the seat in front of you, and that's it (unless a neighbor offers some unused space).

 
At 10:29 PM, July 19, 2008, Blogger Russell said...

Huben as usual misunderstands. Libertarianism is CHOOSING when to give up your freedom in exchange for something. A society in which everyone was free at all times is not a society, it's a mob.

 
At 3:29 PM, July 20, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Libertarianism is strong private property and weak public property. It has got nothing to do with the complete absence of property rights, which would indeed seem to be an unworkable system. Perhaps a simple misunderstanding, then, underlies Mike Huben's fierce opposition to libertarianism.

 
At 7:40 PM, July 20, 2008, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Russell and anonymous use whatever unsourced criteria for libertarianism are convenient to prove their enemies are "wrong" or "don't understand".

I've been collecting those silly criteria for a while, here's a partial list:

Neutrality means that if one person is allowed to do something, all are.
Self-ownership.
Party membership
Absolute rights
non-aggression principle
non-coercion principle
no initiation of force or fraud
people interfere with each other's liberty as little as possible (Narveson p.32)
maximize individual freedom Narveson p.175
People are responsible for their own actions
concensus
pricing of everything
a shared intuitive sense of what is mine and what is thine
common law/torts
responsibility
property
rationality
contract
no public, only individuals
a political movement that seeks to significantly reduce the size and scope of government
minimal government
small government
critique of government
the free market isn't perfect, but it is the best available system
you leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone
Other people are not your property.
liberty to be the most important value
fiscally conservative, socially liberal
maximizing consent
Other people are not your property. (Roderick Long)
Libertarians uphold the sovereignty of each adult individual in social life. (Machan, email)
self determination
individualism
individual rights
spontaneous order
rule of law
limited government
free markets
virtue of production
natural harmony of interests
peace

Exploiting this ad-hoc method of argument, with such wide-ranging declarations of criteria, it would be trivial to declare that anybody doesn't understand libertarianism.

 
At 12:01 PM, July 21, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huben:

Alright, if I'll grant you that Libertarianism means different things to different people, will you concede that it is unfair to accuse of hypocrisy a Libertarian by contrasting his statements to what Libertarianism means to other people, rather than to his own stated interpretation?

 
At 10:04 PM, July 21, 2008, Anonymous Alex Kawakami said...

I used to fly to China quite frequently and always faced the same problem: people with sits on the back of the plane would be boarded first but leave their baggage on the front compartments so they wouldn't have to walk with it all the way down on their way in and all the way up on their way out. So people with front seats would end up having to go all the way down the plane to place and pick up their luggage, so there was actually a significant time loss.

 
At 3:22 PM, July 22, 2008, Blogger John Thacker said...

It long ago occurred to me that one way of making the process of getting on an airplane easier would be to line up the passengers in advance in the inverse order of their seats numbers (assuming you board from the front) then march them aboard. That way the passenger in seat 25 wouldn't have to wait while the passenger in seat six put his bag up. For a fancier version, one might do it by number and letter--first line up everyone with a window seat, march them in, then everyone with a middle seat, then aisle seats.

There's actually a fair amount of modeling, simulation, and actual research on this. Boarding window, then middle, then aisle actually helps. (This is what United does.) Somewhat surprisingly, boarding back to front doesn't really help. The problem is that it's still not that efficient, especially when you board everyone in the back row at once. The people in the aisle on the back row end up standing back a row or two while waiting for the people at the window to load their bags, etc.

Back to front is actually somewhat slower than completely random.

 
At 11:01 PM, July 22, 2008, Blogger Lenin3 said...

Don't feed the troll.

 
At 5:29 PM, July 23, 2008, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Anonymous, I did not accuse David of hypocrisy. He's obviously brainstorming here.

I described his first attempted solution in accurate terms few libertarians would consider desirable. That's funny, because the humor lies in unexpected recognition of that juxtaposition.

 
At 5:01 AM, July 24, 2008, Anonymous John Dewey said...

Slow boarding is not caused by an sub-optimal boarding algorithm. It's the lack of urgency by a portion of passengers which drags out the process. Southwest long ago realized this. Without preassigned seats, Southwest passengers know they must get in line to avoid getting a middle seat.

Turning aricraft quickly is the critical success factor for Southwest. Almost all their operating practices are focused on this single goal. Southwest has investigated but continues to avoid pre-assignment of seats. They know which form of boarding is fastest.

 
At 4:57 PM, July 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a recent trip to Greece, the planes boarded (and exited) from both the front and the back. This sped up the exit, and in theory would have sped up the boarding except that it seemed inevitable that several geniuses picked the wrong side of the plan to board.

 

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