Airlines Look for Best Ways to Board

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By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Who knew that boarding an aircraft would become the newest customer-service issue to rile passengers since the removal of hot meals on flights?

In the past week, two major airlines have altered boarding policies as part of an effort to appease customers while still getting their flights out quicker.

Last week, Southwest Airlines budged on its 35-year policy of no assigned seats. Next month, Southwest will begin assigning seats to passengers on flights out of San Diego as part of an eight-week trial. The move comes as the carrier is trying to attract more frequent business travelers who avoided the airline because it required passengers to check in for flights at least 24 hours in advance or arrive at the airport hours before departure to be part of the first boarding group with the best shot at preferred seats.

Northwest Airlines last week abandoned row-by-row boarding in its coach cabin and opted for open boarding on domestic and Asia-bound flights. That means, after first-class passengers, top members of its frequent-flier program and those needing extra assistance, the rest of the cabin can scramble. Airline spokesman Dean Breest said the change shaves about seven minutes off boarding times.

Boarding has become the latest quandary for airline executives. How do they get passengers on their flights quickly and easily so that the aircraft can close its doors and depart on time? The quicker they can get an aircraft back in the air, the more money that aircraft makes.

Several Northwest customers who flew recently said the boarding change created chaos. Sandra C. Greer flew Northwest to Albuquerque on June 3 but vowed never to fly the airline again because of what she said was a "mad rush" among passengers who jammed the gate area to board.

"It was chaos. I can't imagine how this saves time," said Greer, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor at the University of Maryland.

But Kate Bauer, a Detroit-based Ford Motor Co. collections analyst, said Northwest's new process was "okay" because passengers rarely paid attention to row boarding announcements and boarded when they wanted anyway.

Random boarding seems to be emerging as the preferred method among airlines in part because it frees gate agents to perform other duties such as helping passengers with seating or flight problems.

JetBlue Airways has used random boarding since this spring. Canada's WestJet has used open boarding since 2002 after trying to find alternatives such as boarding passengers from the front of the coach section to the back and from the back to the front. WestJet even tried nontraditional, whimsical ways, such as boarding passengers based on the color of passengers' hair, shoes or socks. "We have found the most efficient is doing a general boarding call," said WestJet's spokeswoman Gillian Bentley.

Last fall, United Airlines chose "Wilma": window, middle-seat then aisle boarding. Prior to the switch, United utilized the most common boarding method, boarding coach passengers from the rear of the aircraft to the front. United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the new boarding system shaves about five minutes from its boarding time.

America West boards coach passengers from the back to the front of the aircraft and from the windows to the aisles. The process was developed by the math department at Arizona State University in 2003. Since merging with America West last fall, US Airways will abandon its zone-boarding policy and adopt America West's system.

But several frequent fliers say there are better ways of boarding. Dennis Daniels of Jackson, Miss., and Mike Rivers of Falls Church suggested airlines board passengers based on the number of carry-on bags. Those passengers with no carry-ons board first, followed by those with one carry-on, then last, those with two (which is the industry limit).

"People pack as much as they can into their bags to avoid having to check them, and stuff their bags in the overhead. This will give them an incentive not to pack as much," added Walter Lane of Alexandria.

Airfone Service Shutdown: Verizon Airfone, which provides phone service on many airlines, plans to discontinue service by the end of the year. The move will affect in-flight phone service on more than 1,000 aircraft on flights operated by United, Delta, Continental, US Airways, Air Canada and Cathay Pacific.

After 21 years of providing commercial aircraft service, Verizon Airfone parent Verizon Communications has decided to focus instead on its core businesses of broadband, wireless and ground communications, says spokeswoman Julie Baron.

Question of the Week: How about those thunderstorms this week? Remember, airlines aren't required to provide any type of compensation for delays or cancelled flights due to bad weather. They just have to get you on the next available flight. So, if your flight, or even train trip, was disrupted by the storms, how did your airline or Amtrak respond? How was the customer service? Let us know: Send your comments to alexanderk@washpost.com . Please include your name and a daytime telephone number.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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