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More about Airlines and Operations Research

Another sign of the difficulty operations research has in getting implemented within airlines comes from the National Post in Canada:

Attention passengers: most airlines make boarding more painful than necessary by insisting on traditional back-to-front boarding even though new research shows it can be done faster.

Back-to-front boarding is only marginally more efficient than front-to-back boarding, but much slower than filling seats in alternate rows, beginning with windows seats from back to front, then middle and aisle seats.

The new research, to be published in the forthcoming edition of the Journal of Air Transport Management, found this optimal boarding method cuts down boarding time by about half, from 25 minutes to 12 or 13 minutes for an aircraft that seats 120 passengers. Back-to-front boarding is “very likely the second worst method,” concludes American physicist Jason Steffen.

There has been previous work on improved boarding.  Will airlines use it?  Probably not:

In Canada, the two major airlines say they like the status quo and have no plans to redraft boarding policies based on new research showing there are faster ways.

WestJet has tried out different boarding methods, and has landed on random boarding. The company won’t release details of its tests, but says random boarding is up to 20% faster than sequential boarding.

Air Canada conducted its own research a few years ago to test various boarding techniques, including random boarding and window-middle-aisle ordering.

Spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick conceded that while traditional back-to-front “is not necessarily the most expeditious, we concluded it is the most customer-friendly. Customers are accustomed to the system, so we do not have to provide a lengthy explanation prior to every flight.”

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Tallys | May 22, 2008 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Here’s an example of an improved boarding strategy that was actually used (at least before America West merged with US Airways; not sure if they still use it now): “America West Airlines Develops Efficient Boarding Strategies”. INTERFACES, Vol. 35, No. 3, May-June 2005, pp. 191-201. I use this as one of the assigned readings in my simulation class.

  2. MXS | May 23, 2008 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I think the passenger re-education problem is somewhat of a red herring. Many airlines now board by “zones”. The effect of doing this is precisely to disconnect the boarding order from the rows in the plane. I’ve observed in many cases that zones don’t appear to correspond to blocks of rows, and I wondered if there wasn’t some OR study behind the definition of a zone–e.g, letting window-seat passengers on early.

    But the passenger re-education process was pretty much a no-brainer: “We will be boarding by rows; look at your boarding pass” became “We will be boarding by zones; look at your boarding pass.” End of discussion.

  3. Aurelie | May 25, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s a myth that window-middle-aisle is optimal – one of these cases where theory forgot to take into account the tiny detail that people travel together rather than by themselves. In practice, it’s not optimal at all. Will you let your child, who wants the window seat, board the plane before you? Even if you’re only traveling with your spouse, it’s annoying to board by yourself. People want to stay together. This is a textbook case of how incorrect assumptions lead people to make ridiculous policies and pretend they’re optimal.

    The issue with “board from the back” is that frequent fliers board first, and they tend to pick seats in the front of the plane, clogging the aisles when the real boarding starts, but it’s much better than “board from the front”, when everybody absolutely must put not only his suitcase but his coat and his scarf folded just right into the overhead compartment, and then take a book from the suitcase.

  4. Hypotheek | May 25, 2008 at 5:24 pm | Permalink


    Interesting theory but unfortunately in many of the EU countries I regularly fly they board by zone and still a big mess, people don’t look or listen and just start boarding straightaway.

    Also the many languages and international travellers might be a reason. Announcements are made in English + the home language of the carrier. Not always covering the whole PAX list 😉

  5. MXS | May 25, 2008 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    @Aurelie: A little adaptive algorithm that zones multi-passenger parties together but still tends to follow the optimal strategy of spacing out most passengers boarding at the same time would be pretty easy to implement–just a Small Matter of Programming…

    @Hypotheek: I admit (regretfully) that I haven’t traveled all that much in the EU. Here, an airline rep screens everyone boarding and can politely ask people boarding out of turn to step out of the line. It actually happens that way, at least sometimes.

    Even with occasional line jumpers and groups, the overall strategy of spreading out passengers boarding together and working from window to aisle seems like a good one. Maybe these issues warrant further simulations.

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