Airlines Weigh The Best Way To Board

As the amount of carry-on luggage passengers bring on board has grown, airlines have been experimenting with different boarding methods, with varying results. Steve Inskeep talks to Wall Street Journal "Middle Seat" columnist Scott McCartney about the highly contentious issue.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you're traveling by plane this holiday weekend, you might take note of the manner in which the airline asks you to board. They're experimenting with ways to speed up the process. Scott McCartney writes about airline travel in the Wall Street Journal column "Middle Seat," and has been thinking of how he gets to that seat.

Mr. SCOTT MCCARTNEY (Columnist, Wall Street Journal): Airlines actually created a problem of their own making by imposing fees on checked baggage. As passengers have adjusted to that, they're carrying a lot more stuff into the cabin, and that's really slowed down the boarding process. So there's been a lot of experimentation among different carriers of, how can we speed up the boarding process?

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what some of the methods are. I mean, the obvious one, that's been around for decades, is back to front. The people in the back of the plane get on first; the people in the front of the plane get on last. How's that work?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well, turns out back to front doesn't work very well. It seems the most logical, but it turns out to be the most time-consuming, in different studies.

INSKEEP: Why?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well, the people at the front of the line get to their seats and stow their baggage while everybody else in line is just standing there, waiting. And what's happened, particularly with the baggage fee issue, is that people have gotten very nervous about overhead bin space. And so the people who are standing in line waiting, getting more and more nervous about whether there will be overhead bin space when they actually get to their seat, they just go ahead and throw their bag...

INSKEEP: Anywhere.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: ...in the bins in the front of the airplane. Anywhere. And so then the guy who's at the end of the line, who's sitting in the front of the airplane, gets on and there's no room for his bag, and so his bag's going to have to be gate-checked. And that's what really slows down the whole process. It turns out, if you go to a more randomized process, you get more people actually sitting down at once, and that really speeds it up.

INSKEEP: Oh, because the people are spread out in different parts of the airplane, and they can all panic in different ways about their baggage, but it's not as bad.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: It's not as bad. The other thing that airlines have tried is boarding by window seat first, and then middle seat, and then aisle seat.

INSKEEP: Which seems to make sense, on the surface.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Seems to make sense. And it actually is faster than the back-to-front method. It's a bit more complicated when you have families traveling together, and things like that. American Airlines spent two years studying this, and found that a pure randomized system is actually faster than the window-middle-aisle method.

INSKEEP: Can I just point out the obvious here? The airlines started charging for bag check because they wanted to make some money off checking bags and have a lower bottom-line price for the ticket itself. It was all about the airline, not the passenger. And they've tried all these different ways of getting us onto airplanes to save time for themselves. Again, it's all about the airline, not the passenger. Is that unfair?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: I think the, you know, the dark side of boarding methods is that we're seeing more and more airlines charge for early boarding -pay $10, or whatever it is, and jump to the front of the line. I mean, it's an industry that has gone to great lengths to impose fees on all kinds of different services, and now is creating fees to avoid the fees.

INSKEEP: Well, let me give you a choice, Scott. We can stop talking now for $10, or we can wrap up this interview for $20 - whichever you'd like.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Either way is fine with me. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Scott, always a pleasure. Scott McCartney's column in the Wall Street Journal is called "Middle Seat."

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