Given how much airlines love to trumpet their punctuality 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 in some countries.
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 largely the same for many years. Premium passengers and families first, followed by the back half of the plane and then the front (or vice versa).
That might change, however, should a new experiment at Gatwick throw up any substantial findings. The airport has just announced a two-month trial – at Gate 101 – during which it will test a variety of boarding techniques to find the most efficient.
Large digital screens have been installed to tell passengers exactly how to embark, and it is hoped that fresh methods could cut boarding times by at least 10 per cent.
"Learnings from the trial, as well as feedback from passengers, will be used to decide whether to take this concept forward or not," said the airport in a statement.
So which is the quickest way to board a plane?
The Gatwick trial favours boarding from back to front, but with window seats first, middle seats second, and aisle seats last. The technique has a name – "WilMA" (window, middle, aisle) – and according to previous studies, from sources as varied as Northwestern University in Illinois and the Discovery Channel's TV series MythBusters, it could save airlines – and passengers – up to 20 minutes of runway faffing on every return flight.
Northwestern University's experiments found that WilMA could cut boarding times by more than 35 per cent, but Gatwick is not expecting such significant savings. Its modelling suggests a 10 per cent improvement, compared to conventional methods. But it also predicts that a change will boost the overall flying experience. "By communicating to passengers better and boarding passengers by seat number, we expect to make the whole boarding experience more relaxing and, potentially, prevent large numbers of passengers rushing forward at any stage," said a Gatwick spokesperson.
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, five per cent 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.
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.
Why won't airlines act?
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. Furthermore, 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.
Gatwick's trial will therefore include a more complex option to board according to row, while leaving a two-row gap to give passengers more time and space to take their seats and stow their luggage. So those in rows 30, 27 and 24 would board first, followed by those in 29, 26 and 23, then 28, 25 and 22.
Whether airlines can be compelled to change their favoured method remains to be seen. "A small number of easyJet flights that use Gate 101 are taking part in the trial initially," a spokesperson for the airline told The Independent. "This isn't something we are looking to implement across our network but will work with Gatwick to study the results of their trial when it closes."
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. In Australia, Virgin, Jetstar and Tigerair all do the same thing (weather permitting).
"Most airlines use air bridges, and customers can only board and disembark through one door, which is a slower process," said a Ryanair 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 a few years ago. 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 today as use of hand luggage increased due to fees for checked 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.
The Telegraph, London