How Airplanes Board

On both Southwest and EasyJet, there are no assigned seats: planes are boarded on a “first checked-in, first served” basis.

EasyJet explains this on their check-in and boarding page as follows:

This makes boarding quicker so aircraft waste less time on the ground at airports — and it is by keeping costs down in this way that allows us to keep fares low.

I’d always assumed that this “boarding quicker” was related to the time saved from passengers not having to bother with finding their assigned seat, but that never really rang true as a reason.

Today, boarding JetsGo (which does have assigned seating) in Toronto, I think I figured it out: when there are no assigned seats, there’s an incentive for passengers to arrive early and board quickly: the reward is a better seat.

Perhaps this has been obvious to everyone but me.

I am, you see, an “front of the liner” when it comes to boarding planes — I am a careful student of the various nuances of announcements, motions, door openings, and so on, and I’m usually able to time my presence at the gate so that I’m at the head of the line, and first on the plane.

And so I rarely see what happens after the initial boarding call.

Today I decided to play it differently: I remained in the lounge until the very last minute, reading my New Yorker until just before last call. Then I simply got up and walked on at a leisurely pace.

Because I had an assigned seat waiting for me, I felt no rush. I could have probably even spent an extra couple of minutes in the lounge if I’d wanted to cut it close.

And therein lies the problem.

Take that leisurely attitude and extrapolate it up to millions of passengers on thousands of flights, and there are hours and hours of time saved, time when jets can be in the air making money rather than on the ground waiting for layabouts to finish reading their magazines.


Johnny's picture
Johnny on July 13, 2003 - 18:54 Permalink

I would have thought the time would be saved at check-in, where you can simply skip the step of assigning a seat, thus reducing the processing time for each passenger.

Isaac's picture
Isaac on July 13, 2003 - 19:36 Permalink

As a somewhat seasoned traveller, I’m definatly the type to wait until the very last minute to board a plane. Why wait in line for 30 minutes to get to your seat? Or why jump on the plane as fast as possible, and sit in that crammed space for any longer than necessary. Sure boarding area’s aren’t the most comfortable of area’s — but unless you’re flying in a better class, they beat airline seats.

Johnny's picture
Johnny on July 13, 2003 - 21:11 Permalink

your on vacation and your posting in your blogger? How much does it cost per minute to use the net? Or are you using the hotels network?

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on July 14, 2003 - 19:07 Permalink

I don’t buy your theory, Peter. The mob around the gate grows and shrinks, but I think the person taking the boarding cards tyipcally is taking them at a constant maximum rate throughout; leaving aside the time the card-taker is waiting for the first-class and special-assistance passengers to amble through, and any time they spend waiting for stragglers. Only if we say your theory describes stragglers am I inclined to think it could apply—only if every flight has at least one person on it who is happy to peruse the duty free shop until the second time they hear “this is the final call for Air Canada flight 753 to Houston,” and only if taking away their assigned seat would make them less lacadasical. But I don’t have any sense of how many flights have how many stragglers. I suppose they only hold the gate open when they know there are passengers who haven’t yet boarded, but I have seen them holding and holding and holding and then just closing, without boarding anybody else. I guess they are waiting for no-shows.
Maybe no-shows are the problem? If an airline has a fully booked or overbooked flight, its contract allows it to give away a no-show’s seat 20 minutes before departure, or something like that, so the airline can get its plane’s off 20 minutes early if it process stand-by’s quickly. The trick to this, though, is just cheap tickets and/or popular routes, and not assigned seating.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on July 14, 2003 - 19:29 Permalink

Then again, I guess I shouldn’t take my impression of constant-rate boarding as evidence against your theory, Peter. The airline may supply only as many staff to take the boarding cards as is justified by the rate at which passengers wrangle together their kids, produce their tickets and move down the ramp. It may be that adrenaline-pumped, panic-striken passengers do all of those things a little more quickly, justifying an additional card taker and more than doubling the boarding rate. But I’m not sure the adrenaline really would increase so much the speed of the key operations (handing over the boarding card, etc), and even with assigned seats the adrenaline doesn’t seem so low.

Nicholas's picture
Nicholas on September 23, 2003 - 19:43 Permalink

what type of system is used to board handicaped people on to airplanes?