Boarding the Plane: It is About Efficiency

Even if you only fly periodically, you probably have come to the realization that the “romantic” days of air travel seem to have passed us by and transported us to the age of big buses in the sky.  Not that taking the bus is a bad experience, but the expectations are different on the city bus than a major airline.  As a frequent flyer, one of the big complaints that I hear on a regular basis from other passengers is why does it take so long to board the passengers and store their things.   In the last year, I have heard flight attendants mention multiple times throughout the boarding process how important it is that passengers hurry to their seat, step out of the aisle, and store their things so that the flight can leave on time.  On a recent flight, I took the time to count the announcements that was made from the start of boarding until the door was closed.  The attendant made the same statement 14 times during the boarding process and even sent two other attendants down the aisle to encourage passengers to hurry with finding their seats.

With more emphasis on conserving fuel on the ground, meeting tight turnaround times to increase aircraft utilization, and improving delays, airlines seem to be doing more to tackle one of the factors that are controllable: the boarding process.  It is like they have figured out some of the issues that slow the process down: how we bring too much on a plane to avoid paying to check bags, at the airplane door we transform from an airport runner like OJ in those old luggage commercials to being disoriented snails, and we act like we have never boarded a plane before and it is a totally new and mystical experience.

Recently, science has taken a look at our issue.  A recent study by a physicist described the ideal boarding process:

His experiment involved boarding a movie set airplane with 72 seats in 12 rows.  Five methods were tested with a few being the mainstay of the some of the largest airlines in the world: boarding from back to front in a specified order, boarding all window seats first, middle seats second and aisle seats third, boarding in groups or blocks, just get on the plane as you can, and the Steffen method named for astrophysicist Jason Steffen. Here’s how he describes his method:

The Steffen method has the passengers lining up in a prescribed order. This order incorporates in a specific way boarding from the back to the front and from the windows to the aisle. Adjacent passengers in line are sitting two rows apart from each other in corresponding seats (e.g. 12F, 10F, 8F, 6F, 4F, 2F). This method attempts to eliminate seat interferences and, as much as possible, aisle interferences while naturally allowing multiple passengers to stow their luggage simultaneously. The separation between adjacent passengers provides some space for each passenger to manipulate their luggage into the bins.

Steffen’s method of boarding a plane is the most efficient due to less seating interference and would save approximately seven minutes of boarding time per flight.  He estimates as much as “$110,000,000 annually per carrier—well over a billion dollars for the industry” could be saved by changing the boarding method.  Nevertheless, there were a few “human” hiccups along the way that resulted in less than optimal performance.  Steffen concluded:

Yet, even in the controlled environment of our experiment, this design was not fully implemented. Six passengers (those with small children) boarded first, some passengers will sit in the wrong seat. In short, there is still randomness to the process. This randomness alone cannot explain why the Steffen method did not board in a single minute as one might estimate from eleven aisle interferences of five seconds each.

Although this is clearly a very innovative method of dealing with a real problem, it is a bit complicated.  It is a good example of how we might know a better way, but the practicalities of human nature get in the way of our success.  As leaders, we fall into this trap from time to time in attempting to address issues in the workplace.  Some big, practical impediments include:

  • different is not always better
  • some solutions are too complicated
  • efficiency is complicated

Different is Not Always Better

Most of us subscribe to the idea that different is better.  We embrace the paradigm that everything can be improved or optimized and assume that some other location, job, or approach must be superior to the way we are doing it now.  Although we should continually look for new ways to improve, we have to realistic about the probability of success.  It is much more likely we will find less than optimal alternatives more often than we find true improvements.  Consequently, it is critical that we closely analyze the impact of “different” before acting.

Some Solutions are Too Complicated

As much as we all want to feel that our ideas are genius, we all are tempted by the beautiful design.  In other words, the idea that works perfectly in our mind and we tend to fall in love with, but is so complicated for real humans to operationalize it will rarely works.  The precursor to the beautiful design may start when we are kids.  I remember planning forts and tree houses that were castles in my mind with multiple levels, drawbridges, and towers.   However, they rarely turned into more than a few wooden or even cardboard boxes once I realized it would take as much wood as a small house to realize my dream.  Practicality is an important part of any solution and should be one of the criteria that we utilize for solution validation.

Efficiency is Complicated

We live in a world where we talk about realizing efficiencies in business, politics, or even our homes like it is something basic.  If you have ever planned a week of kids activities for multiple kids, worked at your job, taken care of a household, and tried to have a little time for yourself, you know that efficiencies are great to talk about and hard to realize.  Or, if you have worked 60 or 70 hour weeks for months and a supervisor dismissed your effort as simply not working efficiently, then you realize that efficiency may not be as obvious as we all assume.  True gains in efficiency take considerable effort and many times focused change.

When devising new methods or processes for improving efficiency, it is important to consider the value of the change, how complicated implementation will be, and the road is usually one that necessitates patience.

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