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

Airport Experience, Delta, United

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 recently stopped boarding more than half the groups before even getting to the mis-numbered “Group 1.” 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, you line up behind your group number. 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 plus 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. Northwest actually did this in its last years before the Delta merger, 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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87 comments on “The Airlines Will Never Get Boarding Right, But They Could If They Charged for Carry-Ons

  1. The fight for overhead storage space really began when airlines started charging for checked luggage. Why not go back to a first bag checked free system? Charge out the wazoo for the second checked bag and a token charge ($10) for a carry-on, they could call it a luggage convenience fee for people who want to avoid the baggage claim.

    But as you said, there is no perfect solution.

  2. You forgot one final boarding group: non-revs, although flights have gotten so full it is of less value with each day that goes by

        1. Roger that. As NRSAs, the wife and I often look like lost orphans looking for a place to stow our carry-ons overhead as we’re among the last cleared on a full flight. If we have a connection, checking our bags through can be a problem if we’re bumped at the connection station.

  3. You are right. I recently flew Frontier STL-CUN and the boarding was very efficient because they charge for carryon. We were going to s primary vacation destination so almost everyone checked luggage and there was very little carry on. Probably the easiest boarding I have ever seen. However, since I am Exec Plat with AA I would never want them to introduce that policy, or at least waive it for elites :)

  4. The best and in my opinion most logical way to board a plane is the very old fashioned way of back to front Sure we could board 1st class 1st then back row all the way to bulkhead in that order If bin space over your seat is full you have to gate check your roller board Simple and I’d bet quicker

  5. Amazing how they just keep creating monsters they cannot feed. I’m in agreement with not charging for the first bag but people have now become so accustomed to grabbing their bag and just exiting the airport that I can’t see that taking hold.
    Maybe a solution geared towards mileage members is to actually hand them a coupon (at check in counters only) worth 2, 5, 10 thousand miles to add into their accounts for every bag they check…and even more if they do it if they are not connecting itineraries…again allowing the first bag (including every family member) to be free. Planes will continue to get more crowded with each passing year so they have to come up with a better solution.

  6. I’ve actually been telling anyone who will listen for a bout a year that airlines should charge for carry-ons and do checked bags free. basically, you should pay for the convenience of keeping your stuff with you .

    1. A year?… airline employees, we’ve been screaming about this for the past ten years. We knew it would get out of hand but they are loathe to come up with a solution. Now they’re trying to please everyone. Stop making every passenger “special” and “elite” with all kinds of exceptions. 6, 7, 8, 9 categories of boarding is ridiculous ! “elite” is PAID First Class, everyone else should be treated as coach cabin passengers – with first bag free, like it or not. No exceptions for miles, credit card holders, or frequent fliers. If the airlines would stop piling on so much cr@p and levels, they might just have controlled mobs of people instead of the worsening mess coming on…..think millions of Chinese tourists inundating all tourist spots of the world.

      1. I fly paid F class anytime it costs no more than about a 20% premium over cattle-class + bag fee + cost of extra-room seat. (relatively commonly available on UA and AA on some routes). The truth is, the service I’ve received is almost without fail about the same (or worse) than what I used to get on super-cheap student fares back in the 1970s. The seats are wider, but I’m a couple of inches wider than I was then, thanks to my genes. I really don’t expect anything more than the larger seat, boarding first, and no competition for bin space. That way I’m less disappointed. Once in awhile I’m pleasantly surprised by the service from a F/A who actually has the time to smile and say hello, but most of the time the front-of-the-bus F/A doesn’t even have time for the basics before he/she has to run off to play Bin Cop or do something else to benefit the other side of the curtain. Joellen: THANK YOU for caring.

  7. The airlines are already paying for the ramp workers so reverse the formula. Offer 1 free checked bag and charge $25.00+ for the carry-on. Sure elites will grumble, but if all legacy carriers go forward with the system they will be forced to accept it. For credit card customers, waive the 2nd checked bag.

  8. Do you really need to introduce politics into your exellent articles {example: “and US (and maybe soon Russian) Military”}?

  9. So far as I’m concerned, the best convenience is not having to drag any more than one small carry-bag (big enough for a couple of books and my tablet) and my daypack through a connecting airport. My checked roller bag is a bit smaller than what most people try to cram into the overhead bin these days, but I’d still rather not have to lug it with me, I’m not ancient, but I’m definitely in the “no spring chicken” category. I don’t mind paying for the convenience of having someone else carry my roller from the check-in desk at Airport A , through the maze at Airport B (usually DFW or PHX for me), and to the baggage claim at Airport C. What I *do* mind are the glassy-eyed hordes who block the gate entrance waiting for their number to be called. If the airlines want to charge for something extra, let them charge $50 for the privilege of blocking the gate. If reading credit card chips is as easy as commercials for blocker-wallets on TV make it to be, then it would be NO problem at all for an airline staffer to wander through the herd and rake in the dough. Just make an announcement that this is being done, and I’ll bet the blockage would disappear instantly.

  10. I flew Spirit about two weeks ago from ORD-LAX. It was my first experience with them and I prepared myself for the worst. I have to say though, the boarding processes at O’Hare and LAX were by far the most efficient I have ever experienced. The over head bins were empty and people immediately took their seats. Same for deplaning… most efficient process in my experience. After that I’m totally in favor of charging people for carry on luggage. Amazing how a little incentive drives certain behavior.

    1. I love Spirit and fly them all the time! The final straw with the legacies was being treated as a “sub-human” at boarding. Like Cranky posted, If you are “just a passenger” (even an AAdvantage member), you are last to board! Spirit treats everyone equal – they don’t have Platinums, Golds, OneWorld Elites, etc! And because they charge for a roller bag, there is always plenty of space in the bins!

      On a recent trip from DFW to LAX, I spent less than $200 round trip. If you are efficient, you can get up to 3-4 days of clothes in a small carry bag without a fee! At that point, buy food/drink at the gate, or buy on board – I don’t mind paying $5 for Coke and chips when I’ve saved over $100 versus AA!

  11. What about going back to where this problem starts—-aircraft design.

    Design the aircraft so that there is enough (both in width and depth) overhead bin space for EACH passenger for one bag (with the exception of bulkhead which would require space for the additional carry on item).

    If you remember, in many early aircraft, there was bin space but the space was not deep enough so you had to stick your bag in sideways instead of top (or bottom) in. This took up a LOT of space.

    You also had the “brilliant” idea of taking the bin space above the first couple of rows in first and using it for emergency equipment and/or IFE. That had a cascade effect as first class had to use some of the bin space in economy for their carry on and each subsequent row in economy had to use the space behind it.

    If you want to speed up the boarding process (and reduce the “feeding frenzy” for bin space), put enough overhead bins in the plane in the first place!

    1. Divide the overhead bins in designated slots, one for each seat. They’ll be smaller than what many people these days consume, and there won’t be any flexibility. But everyone gets their alotted space (and maybe more if there are empty seats). People will buy new carry-one designed for those slots. The bag industry will flourish. Trump will tout it as his job creation accomplishment.

  12. Meet in the middle. Charge for carry-ons bigger than a laptop or messenger bag or small backpack. Essentially, charge for roll-aboard style luggage. Some people won’t pay it, but the people with connections generally will. People doing direct flights will just stow it. After all, no chance their luggage will get lost in some connection when you’re not connecting.

    Oh, and people flying to Las Vegas will pay it too. They take WAY too long to deliver luggage there. I fly there direct from JFK, but I’d still pay for checking my bag just to avoid the extra 30-60 minutes at the carousel.

    1. “After all, no chance their luggage will get lost in some connection when you’re not connecting.”

      That’s presuming the luggage makes it on board in the first place…

  13. No mention of gate checking bags?

    At the risk of adding complications, I’d love to see a system similar to what you described, but with the addition of gate checking.

    For example, checking a bag costs $X (where X may be zero, depending on the airline). Gate checking a bag on a mainline plane and picking it up at the gate upon arrival (same way things work for carryons with RJs now, only do it with mainline planes) costs $X + 10. Bringing anything on board the plane that cannot fit under the seat in front of you costs $X + 25.

    Airlines could manipulate pricing, discounts, etc as needed. To be honest, I don’t have a problem if only the super duper elites get free carryons, and I think that even with that the process would still be much quicker.

    I’m usually in one of the last groups to board, and if it looks like a full flight I will often just go ahead and ask the gate agent if I can gate check my carryon and pick it up at the baggage claim at my destination… Beats having to schlep the bag down into the plane, then back up out of it.

    For that matter, an easy (and interim) solution would be for airlines to offer pax in the last boarding groups the option to check their bags for free when they check in. Imagine a message popping up on the airport kiosks when someone checks in. “This flight is very full, and it is likely that there will not be enough overhead bin space for your carryon. Would you like us to check your carryon bag for FREE to its final destination?” That might cost a little revenue, but it could easily shave a few minutes off the turnaround time for full flights.

    1. I often do gate checks if I have a connection. I don’t know how this fits in with boarding. Delta is abnormally proactive on making people in group 9 gate check their bags. People hate it. Nothing though is worse than watching people try and shove a suitcase in a spot where a thimble couldn’t fit. That slows things down TO A CRAWL.

  14. Although it wouldn’t solve all problems, an easier fix would be to actually enforce the sizer thing that every airline already has. I only see gate agents challenge bags 1 in every (perhaps) 20 flights, and I’ve seen bags that would not fit in the sizer almost every time. It’s the extra-large bags that are difficult to fit and take up more space in the overhead bins anyways.

    1. Have you ever worked as a gate agent, trying to board 120+ or more people; the clock is ticking, you have to get the flight out on time, handle families, strollers, pre-boards, etc ? Then you would know that “challenging” people at the gate about the size and fit of their oversized, overweight carryons is almost impossible……and that’s why people game it. We don’t have time to listen to the whining “over-entitled” (by their own definition) passengers who use the same excuses every time….
      “I do it all the time”.
      “Don’t tell me what to do…, I’m Premier, Gold, Silver, Global, Titanium”
      “We’re a family of five” (whatever that means).
      …and all the other snotty excuses that people can muster up.
      These people will always make it to the gate because they check-in at home and the TSA doesn’t give a rat’s behind about the size of anyone’s bag nor will the vendored line checkers care as well (or argue back).

      1. It’s definitely not impossible. I see it happen very occasionally for mainline flights but pretty frequently for RJ flights, where normal bags simply won’t fit in the overhead bins, and the gate agents manage to do just fine.
        Besides, if airlines were to start charging or implementing any other solution at all for carry on bags, it would still be the gate agents enforcing it. Enforcing the sizer is one thing that would take virtually no change in policy (it is policy already) or new equipment as opposed to making a whole new set of rules.

      2. It wouldn’t be impossible to move this simple size check to much earlier in the airport process – I can see it’s a right pain in the arse for you guys, but other’s comments are correct, in that SO many people get on board with clearly oversized carry on.

  15. There are at least 10 bulkhead seats on each aircraft. The pax response strategy here is to book those ASAP, assuring overhead bin space for those pax — until the airlines figure that out and begin surcharging bulkhead seats like they do exit seats.

  16. I was amazed boarding a ANA 767 (Domestic) at HND about 3 years ago. Flight was full. The entire boarding process took less than 20 minutes, and plenty of people had carry on bags. I’m not sure how ANA boards in terms of WILMA, or rear forward, etc., but it was a striking contrast to what happens in the US!

    1. It’s really a thing of beauty. The first time I flew domestically in Japan, we were 15 minutes from departure time and boarding hadn’t started yet. I was sure the flight was delayed. Then they opened the door and boarded a 777-300 with 400 passengers in fifteen minutes. My jaw was literally on the floor.

      Boarding can get bad in Europe too, but on flights in Australia, Asia and South America, people walk on board and sit down, and the plane leaves. Every time. I chalk it up to two factors: 1.) free checked luggage, so you don’t have carry-ons onboard and 2.) fast baggage delivery. Your bags are waiting on the carousel. In the US, the legacy carriers can routinely take 45-60 minutes to get bags out, so people don’t want to be bothered checking. Delta and Alaska have “fast bag” guarantees but American and United are often miserably slow, particularly at their hubs.

    2. Pretty much how I board in Japan with JAL too.
      People with special needs board first, then premium members, then everyone else from back to front in groups of rows depending on plane size.
      Still trying to get used to that boarding time which starts like 15 min before departure.

      I’m just kinda amazed (appalled?) at the size of people’s carryons in the US sometimes. Personally, if you can’t lift it into the bin without assistance, it should be checked…
      I pack light on my carryons so I could be a little biased in my statement here though.

  17. Just a few thoughts from post and comments.

    1) Too many Elites are the starting point for the problem
    2) Charging for things with value make a lot of sense, you don’t have to drop 1st bag charge as suggested, just need to charge more for carry-on than 1st bag to encourage checkig.
    3) Possible solution within no-charge system: peon class has to gate valet carry-ons like on a RJ. That way they still get a carry-on, still get to keep bag with them, and don’t have to go to baggage claim, but must wait a little at gate for bags, while higher “priority” passengers get overbold bins and can head straight out.

  18. You are missing one reason people have to mill around the gate. The random loud echoing announcements made at that gate and neighbours that also happens to not understandable due to the sheer noise level, crappy speakers and echoes. Usually when you mention this to the staff at the gate they acknowledge it is a big a problem and that they know about it. Nothing gets fixed.

    Clear communication would go a long way. Or as they usually say “mumble mumble fight mumble threeeee gate mumble echo echo now”.

    1. Good point on airport acoustics. Few airports are designed well from an acoustic perspective past security- cinderblock walls with lots of glass, tile floors (or floors with paper thin carpets that might as well be tile), and long hallways just turn the post-security portion of terminals into huge distorting echo chambers.

      I will also add that many people stand by the gate because of the lack of seating at some gates.

      1. Why cannot these become push notifications to our phones? That would be a fantastic improvement in sanity.

    2. The airports should help by turning off all the stupid repeating airport-wide announcements. Yeah, we know, no smoking except in designated areas, just like in every other public building. Oh, only use approved taxi starters? Maybe that’s marginally useful information for the people waiting at baggage claim, but it’s not relevant to people in the mid-field concourse waiting for their connecting flight to board. If I see suspicious unattended bags (that somehow made it past the security checkpoint), hearing an audio reminder every 90 seconds isn’t going to change the likelihood that I call the police. Just turn them all off. I’m looking at you, O’Hare.

      Don’t get me started on the fat people golf carts that are everywhere and beep constantly while in motion.

    3. I just went through MIA and used gate 60 twice this week, where there are about 10 sub gates for regional jets. They all use the same PA system, which was very loud, but you heard the same message over and over and over and over and over and over again. I head the ‘new boarding process’ for American about 10 times, but you don’t know if they are talking about YOUR flight. Agents where competing with each other for mic time. When one agent took a breath, another would talk and the other couldn’t finish. It was crazy.

  19. Marketing the “early boarding” benefit for AA credit cards will be a bit more challenging now. “Get Boarding Group 5 access” doesn’t sound very enticing. So I think both groups 4 and 5 also have names like Priority Boarding and Preferred Boarding. Which the. Leads to disappointment once the boarding pass prints with a big fat 5 on it.

  20. Since you broached it humorously with the Russian quip, I’ll gladly bite. It’s all related to Janet Yellen and the Federal Reserve: credit cards required to live in an inflationary environment, partly to fund the US military, and the need to scaremonger “Red Dawn II” the Russians are coming again to keep the whole mess floating on digital dollars.

  21. You don’t see bags fighting among themselves over who gets on when or where. No, it’s us smart humans, people who sometimes have good reasons (oh, I want to board with my family, grandma needs assistance, etc., like the people who look and carry themselves like Olympic gymnasts yet seem to like the privilege of parking in the handicap spots.

    And, we all know certain cultures (not mine, of course, mine’s perfect) but like visiting Italy in August, and oh, those pushy,nasty [insert your favorite group here], or those guys who drank a little too much before they were about to board.. So, don’t expect the airlines to change all of this.

    Sure, charge a fee for this or that–no cash, no debit cards, discounts for using OUR card, etc. Fares are so complex, surely we can double the complexity with bag handling (sorry, we are already there) triple it with seating (sorry, again), hopeless!

    I wish the overheads were gone (of course, you know I seldom have a carry-on, so what can you expect. Hey! How about paying me a few bucks, maybe a free drink, whatever, for NOT using the overheadsI, and maybe will get to the point where it is cheaper just to eliminate the darn things.

    Anyway, I still like the idea of putting all aircraft out on the tarmac at a million and one hard-stands, people mover to the hard-stand, hook into the plane door, and maybe things would go smoother.

  22. Yes, Brett, it’s an inefficient process at best, esp. with all the carveouts/caveats as you say. Using the example with AA you show, that’s very inefficient but it is what it is. The only suggestion I could offer is during the boarding process, once the ‘peons’ start to board, simply board from the rear of the plane to the front. Also as you say, airlines should charge for carry-on’s and maybe not charge for checked luggage? Encourage checked luggage and discourage carry-on’s. That would be a big help.

  23. Well said.

    Boarding in Asia is absolutely a breeze. Thjey do two things right there: they enforce carry-ons (7kg) and (generally) don’t charge for checking bags.

    American’s decision in 2008 was plain idiotic — charging for low-value cargo space, and leaving high-value cabin space free. They should just switch fees: $40 to bring in the cabin, free to check in the hold. That would reduce their turnaround costs dramatically.

    1. Correct. Boarding hasn’t been easy for the last ~15 years or so, but 2008 is when things really went to hell, when first-checked-bag fees were introduced. I’m 36 years old and I don’t EVER remember long lines in the jetbridge and the aisle when I flew as a kid.

      It is truly amazing to travel in foreign countries and watch flights board in 15-20 minutes. Even countries that aren’t exactly known for coordinated group behavior, like China and Brazil, manage to do it faster than we do.

  24. Ok, this is about brainstorming.
    The problem seems to be the time and inconvenience of using the overhead bins.
    It may be time for some ingenious wunderkind to come up with an alternative to the overhead bin; i.e., develop a seating configuration/baggage handing answer that allows the passenger to take his/her carry-on directly to their seat and store in in some way there where they sit.

    How’s that for a challenge?

  25. ….and this occurs to me:
    A long-term possible solution that requires redesign for future aircraft.

    1. Eliminate overhead bins.
    2. Raise the seating by 1 1/2 feet.
    3. In new aircraft construction, raise the windows by the same 1 1/2 feet.
    4. That 1/2 feet would be accessible and used by the passenger to stash their carry-on.

    Ok, sounds crazy, but try to improve upon this preliminary concept. I dare you.

  26. A long term United flyer and their current process is usually a mess with passengers lined up in their “lane” and this line often spills out into the airport walkways causing congestion in the airport terminal It is a mess. What not go to the Southwest method? U are assigned a group and a number within that group. People stay seated u tip their group preventing backups into the terminal walkways.

    Failing that, charge for carry on.

    Rich Martinez

    1. > People stay seated

      One problem is that in many gate areas there simply isn’t enough seating for everyone, so if people have to stand somewhere anyway, they generally just start forming lines in front of the gate readers.

  27. I was recently in Europe and flew both AirFrance and KLM. Some observations from across the pond where I don’t believe they charge for checked baggage.
    1. both airlies boarded a very (VERY) small # of elites. Neither plane had US domestic 1st class but there was some extra legroom seats up there that had some “special” people in them.
    2. Air France didn’t call any zones, etc. After the special people (all 10 of them) everyone else got in a very orderly single file line. We filled a full A321 in no time. Bin space was not an issue as I saw maybe 1/2 the amount of roller bags as you see in the US.
    3. KLM actually called some zones. My DL status got me sky boarding with them but again, no issues with bin space on a completely full 737-800.

    All in all a delightful experience across the pond. Flight last week domestically was the usual s**t show. 99% of us were “special” one way or another while the rest of the peons were walking up and down the aisle trying to jamb oversized roller bags on the 2 seat side of a 717. Sigh.

    1. Totally agree. Every intra-European boarding experience I’ve ever had was a pure delight. I don’t know if it’s their propensity for queueing properly or what but it’s definitely far less stressful.

    2. I also agree. Sometimes they will board by row number starting with the back after the elites. At some European, Asian, and Australian airports having boarding access to the rear and front of the aircraft simultaneously makes a huge difference.

  28. Well, you can’t discount the fact that many of these comfy boardings may have involved short hauls.

  29. As a retired airline employee you have hit the nail on the head! The airlines have to have the cajones to take this major step to face the negative reaction this will have and stick with it. Enjoy your column; keep up the good work!

  30. I always am on board the aircraft before most (usually all) of the groups you mentioned. Of course, it’s a very inconvenient group to be a member of: I am physically handicapped.

  31. Do away with the overhead bin and have just the old fashion net for hats and coats.

    Keep good under seat space and everything else gets checked.

    Baggage handling with RID chips or whatever they are called would improve the checked bag system.

    That would speed up the boarding process and stop calling 50 groups of people, that is just stupid.

  32. I always thought they let 1st class board first so they could get a good stiff drink down before take-off. Now it’s just a class system for who gets bin space. Funny thing is that most that get on early usually qualify for free checked bags. I travel for work and am loathe to check bags due to the wasted time. That being said I travel extremely light and could in a pinch always fit my carry-on under the seat. Unfortunately flying DL I’m on a lot of old 5 across seat planes. Oh my god. If I ever hear “place roller bags on the 3 seat side” ever again. Same goes for “wheels in first.”

  33. Hello All,

    I used to work for F9 and the solution is simple:

    o Charge a higher price for carryons.

    o Charge a lower price for checked items.

    o Bard premium seat/ticket holders first and then the rest of the PAX’s at random.

    o Monitor the PAX’s that try to use the OHB space without having paid for it.

    I used to be able to board an A320 that holds 177 PAX’s in 16 mins and close the flight and get the manifest to the Captain and Lead F/A “A” and and that mother pushed back once Ramp was finished. I too pride in my work!

    Legacy carriers need to get a grip and figure it out!

    Happy flying everyone!


  34. I purposely do not take an aisle seat for fear of being killed by a bag falling out of a bin. I’m waiting for the Goats and Chickens to be allowed on board…. Love your column.

  35. I saw a great solution to this problem while flying United from PDX last week. The gate agent did the usual announcement of “100% full flight, please consider gate checking” but added an extra incentive: “if you gate check now, we’ll give you a slip of paper to let you board early, between groups 2 and 3.”

    Now, I completely agree that the only reason to care about boarding early is to claim overhead bin space; otherwise I’d like to spent the least amount of time crammed in to my seat as possible. However, it seems not everyone feels this way! I saw a fair number of people take advantage of this, and didn’t notice any issues with overhead bin space.

    What’s not to like about this method? It solves the problem without costing the airline or the passengers anything!

  36. I should have made a comment earlier when I first saw this one, because many won’t read down and see this minor “fire starter”.

    1. Number one way to free up the boarding lg jam? Enforce the rules on size of carryons. All modern airliners have plenty space for a carry on for virtually all passengers _IF_ so many cary on items weren’t so oversize.

    2. But here’s a real thought. OHB space isn’t the only built in slow down cause. Even if there were no carry ons at all, boarding take way longer than is should because the seats and the passengers face in opposite directions. Can you imagine, say a movie theater or a football game or even a church where you were forced to enter from the front, find your seat and then turn yourself and everything with you arounds before sitting down?

    It’s totally ass backwards. Nowhere else in the “people moving, people seating business” do we do things wrong way to..

    Now the best solution from a safety standpoint is to turn the seats around. The Brits especially, had some airlines who did this in the past, but no one really likes riding backwards despite the proven safety benefits.

    So scratch this idea.

    Instead of turning the seats around, turn the people around.

    Since airport architecture pretty much dictates that most Air Bridges only reach one end of the aircraft, simply tail the aircraft in upon arrival, and use a rear door for door for boarding. Virtually every flight requires “tow bar and tug time” at each turn around, just use the tug and tow bar at the beginning of the turn around process instead of the end.

    Let the pax board naturally, going down the aisle from the rear door to their row and stowing in the overhead and sitting down in their seat in one fluid motion. Then when all are seated the aircraft simply taxis out, straight ahead.

    The time savings and hassle savings would be huge and virtually nothing in terms of structure or equipment needs to change.

    Most of our current airline issues are caused by thick headed management who insist on doing things without thinking, just following the “way it’s always been done”.

    Imagination is the key. There are better ways.

    1. Turning the plane around will actually take longer.

      1. The tug operators will need to meet the plane on arrival. At a hub operation, there are not as many tug operators as planes are coming in, so this will actually cause more tarmac planes wait to be pushed in. You will still need to have the rest of people as well to clear the wings and tail of the aircraft (spotters).

      2. Have you ever tried to back a trailer into your driveway? If you are not careful, one minor turn of the steering wheel and the trailer will go awry, you have to start all over again, and the plane can run into the air bridges or other building extensions. Also, unless you have a spotter, you don’t know how far away from the building you actually are.

      3. Tails of planes are a lot taller and will need higher height clearance near the building meaning buildings will need to be built taller.

      4. Planes will need to be modified to have a fourth wheel or a stand placed under them near the tail for the additional weight being placed in the tail area during boarding. Otherwise you will have the planes land on their tail as people are boarding as the weight is shifted to the tail versus the nose that already has the wheels on the ground. The nose wheel already serves this purpose and has most of the weight on it from the cockpit as well as the luggage/cargo stowed below.

      5. Upon engine start up, or engine idle (for those planes unable to attach to APU from buildings), you will have debris fly into the airport buildings causing damage to the buildings. This is one of the primary reason power backups were ceased and only tail mounted engines were allowed. (Maddogs and 727’s) While on the ground this is how the plane is powered and air conditioned while boarding and maintenance are completed between flights. Also this would increase as planes power up to move from the gate.

      6. There are some of the larger planes whose wings extend almost to the tail of the plane so the bridges, as being extended, would have to maneuver around the wings. Also there are smaller wings on the tail that serve as stabilizers that can be hit.

      I don’t know where it is natural to approach your seat from behind and sit down without turning around. In most stadiums and arenas (sports), most of the lower bowl seats you actually step up to get to them as entrances are built to come out at least halfway up from the ground. People who approach the rows actually turn themselves around as they “slide” in so they can actually see which seat it is then turn around again to sit down.

      Movie theatres and concert halls usually have the entrances to the lower level at the bottom and you have to step up. Also the additional entrances are set midway up and you go to the top from there.

      In the past before most planes were jets, planes would pull up parallel to the building and the bridges (when first built) would only extend out from the building. Before most planes would board from the tarmac ground using steps. This was before the planes became taller as cargo started to get stowed below the passengers instead of behind them. People could board from the back as the tail was lower to the ground than the nose.

      1. Interesting. You make some good points. One really good one I didn’t consider was how far back the wind tips really are. A large number of air bridge installations just wouldn’t be able to reach a rear cabin door safely.

        OK, who else has an idea?

  37. Nice joke on Tom Horton, CF. Subtle.

    I’ve been a super-frequent business traveler since 2005. While I agree that charging for checked bags has worsened the boarding problems, my experience tells me the greater pain has been caused by the merger era, which ballooned elite levels at all three carriers and made it reasonably easy for anyone with a decent amount of business travel to achieve low-level status. The ‘elite’ boarding groups are now huge, especially on hub-hub routes. If “Sky” or “Group 1” is half the airplane, you are going to have a crowd at the boarding line, no matter how ‘organized’ the gate area, etc. I’m not sure the solution for this, other than perhaps removing boarding perks for lower-level elites (e.g., only Platinum and above get early boarding–although, still, that group can be huge on hub-hub routes).

    Airlines do not always help themselves here. I see two things that cause unnecessary crowding at the gate:
    1. There is not enough seating in the gate area, or the seating is impossible to access. People are going to stand if there is not a place for them to sit or if they have to trip over 89 bags to find a seat. Generally, the only place for them to stand is either in the hallway (blocking those trying to pass) or near the boarding lane. I know that, in some cases, this would require airport renovation; in other cases, though, it would just require more attention to design (something airports in general sorely need; I’m convinced most people who build airports have never actually spent time in one, MSP’s new bathrooms being a shining exception to this rule).
    2. Post who is boarding! Delta does this well–at boarding time, there’s a big monitor that says who is boarding at what time, which helps the people who weren’t listening (or who stopped listening after 5 minutes) to the gate agent’s announcements. That helps with the people who were in the bathroom, come back to the gate, and panic because people are getting on the airplane. American does this poorly; for instance, if I’ve been at the Admirals Club and go to the gate and the agent has started boarding, I have no easy way to tell what group is boarding.

  38. If we remember the days of traveling immediately after 9/11 we all know what it would be like if they charged for overhead bin space.
    From a boarding process you are 100% correct Cranky, it would improve the boarding process.

    The problem that your article is that it only covers the boarding process and it does not cover is where does all that luggage go if not in the cabin. It has to go somewhere. So, while I agree 100% with your points it is part of a bigger problem/solution.

    For airlines to get passengers to willingly make the shift they will need to feel comfortable that the luggage will get on the plan and to them at the destination airport quickly. I have waited for an hour numerous times and that is criminal.
    If I paid for check luggage and I waited an hour, I would file a complaint with the DOT (since I am elite I don’t pay, so while it still bothers me it I am alright with it).

    I do agree with many other commenters that switching the fee from checked to carry-on needs to be part of this.

    1. Yes 100%. People aren’t just carrying bags on because they’re cheap. They’re carrying bags on because, at many airports, the airlines take an obscenely long time to return luggage. Passengers have accepted as fact that luggage delivery is slow, and refuse to check bags anymore, even if their first checked bag is free. I’m an AA EXP so my bag is free, but I almost never check, because at LAX it routinely takes 45-60 minutes for bags to start coming out. DFW and ORD can often be even worse. The airlines have been relentlessly cutting the number of bag handlers, just making the problem worse.

      Staff up for timely baggage delivery and reduce/eliminate the checked bag fee, charge for carryons instead, and the issue WILL get better.

  39. What hasn’t been mentioned anywhere yet is that there are Congresspeople who have publicly stated that airlines shouldn’t charge for overhead bin space.
    Right, wrong, or indifferent, most but certainly not all airlines are not going to start challenging government officials when they can make the current system work one way or another.

    Let’s also be very clear that the economics of changing the boarding system simply do not stack up. Even if US airlines could cut 5-10 minutes per flight off the boarding and deplaning process (and it is likely 10 minutes tops), the rest of the ground time is needed for other purposes including connections. At hubs, airlines start boarding early knowing full well that there will be connecting passengers that will arrive at the last minute. They can’t “compact” schedules enough to make ground time shorter for a whole lot more reasons than just boarding and deplaning time.

    On the other hand, low cost and ultra low cost carriers that run predominantly point to point operations and fewer crew changes have very different economics. but when LCCs operate in a hub fashion, they have to live with the same time constraints that the legacy carriers do.

    Economics will dictate whether anything changes – not the perception of chaos as right as that perception might be.

  40. How about a moving carryon mover in the overhead bin (ala moving walkways or staircases) with a boarding from back to front. as the passengers enter the cabin they place their carryon on the mover which takes it to the back where they will sit. When exiting the cabin the reverse happens.

    This way they passenger simply need to find their seat and the lines move quicker.

  41. Good morning Cranky. Your idea makes sense from a passenger standpoint — get the carry-ons in the cargo pit and boarding will be expedited. But there is one problem — revenue!

    When the airlines started charging for checked baggage, my best guess is that the consequence freed up space in the cargo pit which could be sold for non-passenger cargo. Since passenger baggage always has the highest priority on airline cargo pits, the loss of baggage means the airline can sell the cargo space to outside firms, which increases the overall yield on the aircraft. Nobody talks about this but I have to believe this is one consequence of the carry-on bag revolution.

    So, implement the CrankyBag plan and the fees would have to be high enough to offset any cargo revenue loss in the cargo pit. Ya think?

    1. plus, it will take more staff to load bags. Passengers carry their own bags on the plane and then are the only ones they have to blame for the delays in boarding and deplaning. Hard to accuse an airline of delaying or damaging bags if they never touch them!

  42. I have a solution. Shoot the passengers.

    Kill them off and load them on the plane like cargo. You can bulk load them in 15 minutes. Problem solved. Even better…now that they’re dead they don’t need their carry-ons so you can just toss them in the trash. This should improve on time departures tremendously.

    Yeah…it would put a bit of a crimp in carriers’ long term revenue streams since you are cutting down on your pool of potential travelers by killing them off. But you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

  43. I’ve seen both DL and AS have bins where you can turn the bags on their side and then load them into the bin and I have been able to put my small carry on atop someone else’s small carry on and use less space. If these bins are used on the entire fleet someday, that should really reduce the carry on issue.

    For me, the biggest issue as to why I don’t like checking bags when I can help it is the time spent waiting at the baggage carousel. Sometimes, you just want to go home.

    1. and notably some airlines including Delta have guarantees about how quickly your bag will be on the carousel if it is checked. DL guarantees that bags will start arriving within 20 minutes after gate arrival – and they keep that guarantee much more times than not.

      Airlines aren’t blind to the issues with checking bags any more than they are about boarding times or that most (but not all) people want to keep their bags with them even if it increases boarding and deplaning times.

  44. I don’t currently and may never have a job that will have me travel so much as to qualify for super-duper elite status. Yet I spend a lot of time and my OWN money flying. Therefore, I very much appreciate the small perks here and there that make me feel like a special snowflake.

    But I am very efficient and contentious in stowing my carry on. :-)

  45. The airlines could mitigate the PR issues without giving up too much revenue by simply providing one free bag plus one personal item with every ticket, but the flyer decides whether that one free bag is checked or carry-on.

    1. I really like this idea. I often make this choice myself when flying Southwest. Either jam everything into a carry on or just be easy and check a larger bag. But I don’t need both.

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

    That is nonsense. Show me the objective boarding and unboarding times where (1) no one has a carry-on, (2) perhaps half do if you charge for carry-ons and (3) the norm now of carry-on use.

    I doubt that there is a huge difference cases 2 and 3. Even if it is five minutes, how does that really matter when you consider all the time required to take a flight from the passenger viewpoint and the times required for a flight to arrive and depart, including taxi time, luggage loading and unloading, cleaning, supplying beverages, fueling, ATC delays, etc.

    I often board somewhat early to sit in the back. Almost always I am waiting for others to clear the aisle as they settle a kid, get out their magazine or ponder the fate of the universe before I can get to my seat where upon my overhead luggage is stowed before anyone else gets to my seat area.

    Upon deboarding, I have my overhead luggage removed minutes before I can move forward. I am not an impact to the efficient boarding or deboarding.

  47. Spirit was ahead of their time! Also, another reason I actually prefer flying ERJs (135/140/145), and CRJs! Since they collect the bag at boarding, bin space is not an issue! I don’t know why people complain about regional jets. Despite the smaller cabin, the seat space on both ERJ and CRJ are equal to or better than a 737 or 757!.

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