The Airlines Will Never Get Boarding Right, But They Could If They Charged for Carry-Ons

Since the dawn of time (or something like that), airlines have struggled to find the best way to board their airplanes. I can’t count the number of different efforts that have been made. Heck, we’ve seen two new ones, from both Delta and American, in the last month alone. I have no doubt this involves a great amount of industrial engineering work, research, and observation. But while there may be a chance of getting small improvements, the airlines will never get it completely right unless they decided to charge for carry-ons.

The issue, of course, is that the airlines are never actually looking to try to optimize the boarding process. They have created too many carve-outs and caveats to make this as complex as possible. And that means there is no way to do what’s best for getting people on and off the airplanes. Just look at American which Now it has a whopping 9 groups, not including the one pre-group for fancy pants Concierge Key super duper elite members. Here’s how it works.

Group Number Who Can Board
None, numbers are for chumps Concierge Key
1 First Class, some Biz Class, and US (and maybe soon Russian) Military
2 AAdvantage Exec Plat and oneworld Emerald, some Biz Class
3 AAdvantage Platinum Pro, Platinum, and oneworld Sapphire
4 Less important elites (AAdvantage Gold, oneworld Ruby, Alaska MVP), Air Pass, Citi/AAdvantage Exec cardholders, people who paid for priority boarding
5 Premium Economy, Main Cabin Extra, other AA credit card holders
6 First cluster of peons
7 Second cluster of peons
8 Third cluster of peons
9 Basic Economy, Sub-humans, stowaways, Tom Horton

Yes there’s a little embellishment in there, but it’s very little. This change for American wasn’t about simplifying or fixing the boarding process. It was solely about creating numbers for each group so people could generally know when they would be boarding. In that sense, I like it. While it may keep people from hovering around the gate trying to make sure they don’t miss when they board, it doesn’t help speed up the boarding process beyond that.

Delta is taking a stab at this as well with a new boarding pillar system at five gates in Atlanta that looks like what United does. Basically, . This is far from “innovation” as Delta seems to suggest, but apparently there’s more coming. Like this:

As Delta develops new solutions to improve the boarding process, the airline looks to take the “hold room” feel out of the gate space and create an interactive area full of meaningful distractions that keep customers engaged and entertained while they wait, Lentsch explained.

Oooh, a magical wonderland with meaningful distractions! Gimme a break. What I really want is to spend as little time in the gate area as possible, but if I do have to, then give me free, fast, functioning wi-fi.

So what should the airlines do? They’ve tried a whole ridiculous number of boarding patterns. There was the boarding-by-row system with the back boarding first. Oh, and anyone remember WilMA? That was United’s effort to board windows, then middles, then aisles. Or there was the vaunted reverse pyramid where airlines started filling in with windows in the back, then middles in the back and windows further forward, then aisles in the back, middles further forward, and windows at the front, etc. None of these things really work all that well. Why? It’s all those carve-outs people like to board with their entire family so you never get true adherence to the rules.

The best way to board an airplane is at random. , and it worked great. Sure you still had the carve-outs, but once the elites were onboard, it was totally random. That helped create less congestion in the aisle because people were trying to find seats in very different parts of the airplane. Of course, since that time, the entitlements have grown (credit cards, anyone?), so it probably wouldn’t work well today anyway. So is there any solution?

Sure there is, but it’s not one that the legacy airlines have been willing to touch yet. Think about why people board early. It’s all about the bin space. I mean, otherwise, why would you care (assuming you’re not on Southwest, of course)? Your seat isn’t going anywhere, neither is the space beneath your feet. All you do by boarding early is spend more time on that airplane. That just seems so silly… if it weren’t for that precious bin space. Because nobody wants to have to check a carry-on.

The airlines have spent a fair bit of money on trying to expand the size of overhead bins so they can fit more in, but it’s still not enough. There are more bags than there is space. (And sometimes even if there is room for every bag, the airlines force you to check anyway out of expediency, as happened to my wife for the second time in a row on American out of LAX last week.)

Basic Economy will help on American and United. There will be some people who can no longer bring on a carry-on, so that means more space for everyone else. But it’s unclear how many people will buy Basic Economy, so you can imagine a situation where people who buy regular economy for the ability to carry on a bag are still forced to check it. That would make me livid.

There really is only one solution to change this situation around immediately, and many of you will cringe. Start charging for carry-on bags.

Bin space is the most desirable place to put your bag on the airplane, so the airlines could come up with a scheme to charge you more for bin space than they would for checked bags. Then they would guarantee bin space for you, and you wouldn’t have to worry when you board. This pricing method has worked for airlines like Spirit which has no trouble with bin space. Of course, the legacies would screw it up. They’d exempt elites, credit card holders, etc, and we’d be right back where we were in the first place.

Like I said, this won’t be popular, and it may or may not be the right thing to do. But it’s the only way to truly solve the boarding problem. (Ok, maybe tasers would work too….)

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