Wednesday 26 October 2016

A simple change will speed up plane boarding - so why won't airlines listen?

The 'WilMA' Method

Oliver Smith

Published 16/09/2016 | 06:35

Boarding an airplane. Photo: Deposit
A Southwest Airlines airplane prepares for boarding. Photo: Deposit
Airplane at sunset. Photo: Deposit
London Heathrow Airport Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Michael O'Leary

The WilMA method could slash up to 20 minutes off boarding times, so why don't airlines use it?

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Given how much airlines love to trumpet their punctuality (barely a month goes by without Ryanair claiming that it is Europe’s most on-time carrier), you’d expect them to try just about anything to speed up the boarding process. 

Even more so now that long delays can result in costly compensation claims.

But while everything else that constitutes the flying experience, from entertainment to plane food, has been given an overhaul, the way we climb on board an aircraft has remained resolutely unchanging. Premium passengers and families first, and then all those in the front rows followed by all those in the back (or vice versa).

And that’s despite an obvious solution staring airlines in the face.

According to various studies, from sources as varied as Northwestern University in Illinois and the Discovery Channel’s TV series MythBusters, a simple new approach could save airlines – and passengers – up to 20 minutes of runway faffing on every return flight.

A Southwest Airlines airplane prepares for boarding. Photo: Deposit
A Southwest Airlines airplane prepares for boarding. Photo: Deposit

Instead of getting passengers to board according to their row number, they should board according to their column. Those with a window seat first, followed by those in the middle and, finally, those in the aisle.

The “WilMA” method, as it has been dubbed – window, middle, aisle – could cut boarding times by more than 35 per cent, according to Northwestern.

Similar savings could be made if WilMA is used to disembark the plane, it said.

MythBusters, which devoted almost an entire show to the thorny problem, tested six options using a replica of an aircraft interior and 173 willing volunteers. To simulate reality, 5pc of passengers were asked to behave “problematically” – sitting in the wrong seat, wasting time folding up their coat in the aisle, that sort of thing.

The regular method, with business class getting on first and then everyone else boarding in zones, starting at the back and moving to the front, took a whopping 24 minutes and 29 seconds. WilMA took just 14 minutes and 55 seconds, even when premium passengers were still permitted to board first.

Volunteers were also asked to give each method a “satisfaction” score, and WilMA scored far higher than the standard boarding technique.

Michael O'Leary
Michael O'Leary

Remarkably, the method currently favoured by airlines was shown to be far slower than simply letting everyone on board at once to find their own assigned seats (17 minutes and 15 minutes).

Quickest of all, however, was allowing passengers to board all at once and to choose their own seats – a method once favoured by Ryanair but abandoned in 2014 as part of its “family-friendly” facelift .

So why don’t airlines take heed?

For one, passengers who like to take advantage of speedy boarding – and airlines who like to take advantage of charging them for the privilege – would be scuppered. But the most glaringly obvious reason is that groups and families would – albeit temporarily – be split up. As a family will typically share a row of seats, mum in the window seat would need to leave behind everyone else to take her place, while little Jimmy in the middle would be expected to find his seat all on his own.

We asked a handful of UK airlines whether they’d consider adopting WilMA, or make any other changes to the generally accepted method of boarding a plane.

None said they would, with easyJet elaborating: "While boarding by columns could be theoretically quickest... it could be frustrating and confusing, as families and travelling companions would need to be split up to board."

It should be noted, however, that United, the US carrier, has already embraced WilMA. It asks passengers with window seats to board first (once premium customers and families have taken their seats).

Boarding an airplane. Photo: Deposit
Boarding an airplane. Photo: Deposit
London Heathrow Airport Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

How else could airlines speed things up? Using both front and rear doors would be a start. Ryanair is one airline to do so as a matter of policy.

“Most airlines use air bridges, and customers can only board and disembark through one door, which is a slower process,” said a spokesman. “There are a set of airstairs built into the front of our aircraft, which the crew extend and retract, and we use a wheeled set of airstairs at the rear ensuring we can turn our aircraft around in 25 minutes.”

An innovative option was introduced by Delta last year. Its “Early Valet” service sees staff preload passengers’ hand luggage above their allotted seats prior to boarding and is available on selected routes.

Research has suggested that baggage is the biggest factor when it comes to rapid boarding, while average boarding speeds have slowed from 20 passengers per minute in the 1960s to nine per minute in 1998 as use of hand luggage increased due to fees for checking bags.

Delta’s service is not free, of course, which makes you wonder whether it was really devised with speedy boarding in mind.

The best option of all, according to Dr R. John Milne, of Clarkson University in New York, and set out in the Journal of Air Transport Management, would be for passengers with the most luggage to be given window seats and kept as far apart as possible, before boarding in a carefully choreographed order.

Window seat passengers in odd numbered seats on one side of the plane would board first, followed by those in even numbered seats, or vice versa.

The process would be repeated for window seats on the other side of the cabin, then for middle seats and aisle seats in the same manner.

Yes, that all sounds a bit complicated.

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