We've all been there. Waiting outside the gate as one group after another is motioned to board the airplane. When your group is finally called, everyone rushes to the podium to hand over their ticket (or scan their smartphone) and get on the plane. But once on the jetway, there's another line, which continues on into the aisle of the plane. The reason for the delay is because multiple people are trying to get into the same row or are searching for overhead bin space, forcing people behind them to wait until they can get by and cause more people to wait as they get to their seat. It's been like this for years, and the process has only been made worse by the increase in carry-on luggage thanks to airlines boosting fees for checked bags.
I have seen the process hundreds of times, with airlines boarding first class or premier level fliers first, and then boarding the rest of the plane from the back to the front (standard). I've always known it is slow and somewhat inefficient, but until I read this article on Vox, I never realized how absurd it actually is. And as much as I'm not the biggest fan of Southwest's process, I'm beginning to warm to it a little more after reading this.
The thought process is that by boarding from the back to the front, you'll avoid a buildup of passengers waiting while everyone puts their bags up and finds their seats, because people will be moving from the back forward. But this only works if people actually board in order, from very last row and on. And even then, someone who is in the aisle seat might reach the row first, and then is forced to get up while someone in the window or middle seat gets in, thereby forcing people behind to wait and more congestion to build up.
The article discusses a few alternative options to the standard boarding process, and compares times for each one. Based solely on time, the clear winner is Southwest's procedure, followed closely by a method of boarding people from the outside-in, which means all window seats go first, followed by middle seats and then aisles. Apparently, some airlines have caught on to the efficiency of the latter, and have started to implement it. But if that's so, I clearly haven't experienced it yet. So everyone should just switch the Southwest way, right?
Not necessarily. While it may cut down on the boarding time, Southwest's process causes other problems, mostly with customer satisfaction. It isn't the most convenient system for people traveling in large groups, because they aren'y guaranteed a spot together on the plane. And a lot of people hate having to jump online the minute they are allowed to check in so they can get a good boarding number. If you're even five or ten minutes late, you could be in the last boarding group, inevitably leaving you with a middle seat in the back of the plane.
Of all the methods mentioned, the one that makes the most sense is a theoretical one that no airline currently uses dubbed the "Steffen method." It's similar to the outside-in process, but it is more choreographed in that the window seats from one side of the plane go first, followed by the window seats from the other side of the plane, and so on. In addition, the rows of passengers allowed to board are staggered, preventing multiple passengers from using the same aisle space, and therefore reducing congestion.
Even though better methods have been developed, airlines will most likely stick to the process they have right now, because it allows them to charge passengers for priority boarding. If they had a quick, efficient boarding process, they wouldn't be able to make a profit off people who want to skip the hassles of boarding.
So the answer to the question is, yes, we can improve plane boarding, but will it actually happen? It's not looking good.