Thought Leadership

All aboard! Why is getting on to a plane so difficult?

By Colin Walls

If you read this blog with any frequency, you will know that, like many of my colleagues, I travel quite a lot on business. And that travel mostly involves flying, which is a tedious, tiring and stressful activity. We all accept the way that it is mostly because we have no alternative. Some airlines try to be innovative, but it is a very competitive business and being “different” can be risky and expensive. But I really feel that some rethinking is necessary …

Before I start to talk about all the things that need fixing, perhaps I can introduce a positive note and say that some things have improved. An amazing number of flights do actually run on time, regardless of major airports being overloaded and costs being closely contained. All the security stuff is irritating, but, again, matters have improved. Airports have gradually got the hang of it and it is so much smoother than it was just a few years back. All we need now is a bit of consistency. The whole check-in process is almost always a dream compared with just a few years back. I was delighted to be able to print my own boarding passes, but was commonly thwarted on the return trip. Now, I just have them sent to my iPhone. The Passbook app is amazing; it does one simple job and it does it beautifully, which is exactly what all good smartphone apps should be like. And also, I can now use my Kindle all through the flight – life is good!

I have two major gripes. First is the boarding process. Second is the whole question of luggage.

Getting passengers into their seats should not be hard. There are a certain number of people – typically around 100 – each of whom has a clearly assigned seat. The challenge is that there is normally just a single door at the front of the aircraft and a narrow passageway down the middle of the plane. Think about how boarding is done now. There is an announcement along the lines of “We would like to invite business/first class passengers and gold/platinum/diamond/uranium club members to board first.” This translates to “Some of you guys have paid through the nose for your seat and other just keep coming back to us for more abuse and we would like to reward/encourage you to keep on doing that. We cannot afford to really give you much of a reward, so we will make you feel important by allowing you to jump to the front of the line. We do not really mind ticking off the rest of the passengers, as there is nothing that they can do about it.” The remaining passengers are then allowed to board in “whoever pushes to the front” order. The result of this system is that boarding takes for ever, as most of the time people cannot get to their seat because someone else is getting settled and is blocking the aisle.

The solution is trivially easy: board row by row from the back. A call goes out for Row 22 and 6 people get on. Then Row 21 and so forth. No exceptions are allowed. Anyone who does not board when their row is called has to wait until the very end. As I see it, this could not fail to speed up the process. Clearly the details would need to be changed for planes with two doors and where passengers are bussed to the aircraft. Similarly, exceptions would need to be made for disabled passengers. These are just implementation details.

One of the reasons why people are so keen to get onto a plane first is the subject of rant #2: hand baggage. Logically, the only things that a passenger should carry on board are items that are required during the flight and things that are too fragile to entrust to baggage handlers. Everything else should go in the hold. So, why do so many people carry – or, rather, drag – such huge cases onto the plane? There are two reasons; firstly, even at small airports the wait for checked baggage can be interminable; second, with an indirect flight particularly, there is a significant risk that a checked bag will go astray.

Again, the fix is quite straightforward. I will not say that baggage handling needs to be improved. It does, but I am confident that airports are fairly motivated to make some progress here. What I want is a system where I can have the convenience/efficiency of carrying my own bag without the aggravations that this practice causes. The good news is that such a system exists already. I observed it in action only yesterday, for example. Many smaller planes [regional jets and the like] have very restricted storage space in the cabin. As a result, there is the option [compulsion actually] to “check” a bag as you board the plane and collect it as you disembark. You just need to carry on board anything that you need during the flight [and fragile stuff]. I cannot see any reason why this system could not be scaled up somewhat for larger aircraft – it is only a question of logistics and procedures.

It would only take one airline to change … [And I know of at least one person who will comment on this posting and tell me why my ideas will not work. :-)]

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at