I’m boycotting United Airlines and refuse to ever fly with them again. Not because they were the first to charge for baggage, or because the seem to specialize in surly flight attendants, but because they teamed with Capital One so that fans of high interest rates get to board their flights first. The only first on board privileges based on the option you selected to pay for your ticket should be when you swiped your American Express Centurion Card. Because the rich should always come first. Just as the gods intended.
Even then I’m of two minds when it comes to boarding a flight. The problem is that I’m not a fan of being on that damn plane any longer than absolutely necessary. So as much fun as it is to board first, and then enjoy the floorshow the airline puts on for you of beleaguered and bewildered lower-class passengers dragging oversized roller bags down the aisle in hopes of finding a coveted storage space while those of us who count passed ours to a flight attendant at boarding and told him or her to put it somewhere, I’d just as soon spend that time in the airline’s lounge. The one they reserve for the best of the best. And despite missing out on the refreshments that come along with the floorshow, there’s something to be said for allowing the entire plane to board before you finally make your entrance.
I miss stop-overs at Narita when I used to fly NorthWest. When you were a Passenger Who Counts, they’d hold the plane way past its scheduled take-off time waiting for your entrance. You didn’t even have to pay attention to the clock. They’d send a girl running through the airport calling your name. Nowadays when you finally make an entrance the passengers who paid to be ballast are so tired and beat down from what both the TSA and the airline just put them through they barely have the energy left to shoot daggers at you for making them dwell in hell even longer than planned. Flying today just isn’t as much fun as it once was.
Flying once was the most expensive form of travel. And the airlines treated passengers as gods. Or at least not like freight. Then they got greedy, thinking more passengers meant more profits. Instead, they convinced those meant for bus travel that they too could fly. And the cattle said thanks by demanding lower and lower airfares. So the airlines had to cut costs and service was the first thing to go. That went so smoothly they started whittling away at everything that once made flying enjoyable. And the herd mentality said, “Moo.” Which would have been fine if they kept that to steerage where it belonged. Now even in first class you have to put up with all of the tribulations that flying has become. That means often having to stand on the tarmac waiting your turn to climb a steep flight of tacky metal stairs. And sometimes even having to catch a bus to the actual terminal because the airline was too cheap to pay for gate privileges. Seriously. If I wanted to ride on a bus I’d have taken Greyhound, not paid thrice the ticket price than did those in the back of the plane who are forced to share a bathroom with their fellow 500 passengers.
Boarding procedures were once simple and democratic. First class passengers got to board first. And then everyone else was allowed on the plane with the rest of the luggage. Now they let old people get on before others, even though any idiot knows that just slows everyone else down. Then they let passengers with infants and small children board, even though infants should not be allowed on a plane in the first place (as for small children, they’ll fit in an overhead, so what’s the problem?) Next comes each level of that airline’s frequent flyer club. And then those damn Capital One credit card holders. And it keeps going and going and going. Meanwhile, those of us up front have to wait. We’re never supposed to have to wait. For anything. We had an iPhone 6 a week ago. A much more simple and easier way to fill the plane would be to allow first class passengers to board and get settled in. And then open the boarding gate doors and tell everyone else they have five minutes to get on and grab a seat or they’ll be left standing on the tarmac. You may think that’s an elitist attitude. But science backs me up.
Airlines are big on tradition, especially on those procedures that never worked well in the first place. Most still use the board from the back to the front scenario by default, although some airlines have updated that procedure by using groups and zones although the system and its outcome is still the same. A few, to be different, use the window to aisle filling pattern thinking that will clear the aisles fastest. It would if not for the passengers who sit in the window seat on aisle 38 when their assigned seat is the window seat in aisle 37. And Southwest started the fad of the free for all seating mob scene, though you have to give them credit for having the balls to be honest enough to admit they really don’t give a damn who you are or where you sit as long as you paid for your ticket. Air Asia used that system too until it realized it could charge passengers extra for assigning them a seat.
Herb Kelleher, one of Souhtwest’s founders said, “Planes only make money in the air.” A statement that’s all about profits through keeping those planes full and moving shouldn’t necessarily be something passengers get behind, but if that means shortening the amount of time I have to deal with the flight experience, I’m all for it. Hiring TSA agents who weren’t shopping mall security guard rejects would probably be a good first step. But Kelleher was defending his airline’s use of the free for all seating scheme, the least favorite boarding procedure amongst passengers because far too many end up seated in the middle of a row ‘cuz they are too slow to grab a good seat before everyone else does. But that’s Darwinism at work. And it works for Mother Nature. It turns out that also works the best for loading a plane with passengers.
The brain trust at Mythbusters, a popular US television program that routinely proves how many stupid things we take for granted are lies, recently tested the four most popular plane boarding procedures for efficiency. For their speed test, they used a simulated average-sized, single-aisle airliner complete with gate-checked luggage, real-world flight attendants, and last-minute stragglers. The ever popular zone scheme, wherein first class boards first then the plane is filled by zones from the back to the front, took the longest at 24 minutes, 29 second. Because that is what is most familiar to flyers, it’s also the boarding procedure they most favor.
Next Mythbusters tested a not-so-popular boarding procedure: free for all boarding, but with assigned seats. The line nazis hate this scheme because they miss standing in a queue; the passengers who Darwinism favors dislike it because even though they get on the plane first there’s no reward. But cutting out the boarding line alone saved 17 minutes in boarding time. The test took 17 minutes, 15 seconds to fill the plane.
Filling the plane from window seat to aisle seat (after first class boards) is another variation on the zone boarding procedure and is the second most popular boarding scheme among passengers. But it fails too because you are dealing with humans and many of that species are just not too bright. In Mythbusters’ test, this boarding procedure took 14 minutes, 55 seconds. So it still is quicker than the back to front method. Until that 90-year-old woman sits in seat 34A when she’s supposed to be in 36C.
Last up was the totally unpopular, only the strongest survive, free for all boarding where everyone rushes onto the plane pushing and shoving to grab the best seat before someone else can. Note that unless you are on a budget carrier – which you shouldn’t be – there is still a first class on these flights and those passengers, rightly so, still get priority boarding. In Mythbusters’ test, this boarding procedure was the quickest. It took only 14 minutes, 7 seconds to load the plane so it could get on its way. Even better, depending on where you are seated, it provides the best floor show for first class passengers. And using the Darwin approach to plane boarding shaved ten minutes off the plane’s ground time.
Whichever class you are flying, air transportation is brutal these days. It seems to me that now that we know how a carrier can be more efficient, and can provide a better onboard entertainment experience for its passengers who count at the same time, all carriers should adopt the free for all boarding procedure. Low-cost carriers who insist on nickel and diming passengers could even make more profits by providing first class passengers a paid option for a color commentary feed of the boarding melee in the back of the plane so no one would miss the 90-year-old woman using her cane to snag a window seat away from a mother with two infants. In fact, airlines could charge more for tickets based on the passengers booked in cattle class. ‘Cuz who wouldn’t pay more to watch midget wrestling during boarding? And that, as Western Airlines once proclaimed, is the only way to fly.
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