Plane boarding during COVID-19 pandemic: Will coronavirus kill off the queue?

Why is it so difficult for airlines to devise a quick, simple boarding process? For the typical economy class passenger, getting onboard anything bigger than a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320 involves a fair degree of chaos. The new rules around social distancing and mask wearing in the airline industry have imposed a new sense of order on air travel. Does this mean we can expect faster, smoother boarding?

Back-to-front boarding

Most airlines still use the back-to-front boarding method. Premium flyers, parents and guardians with small children and those in need of assistance on first, then passengers seated at the rear of the cabin, followed by those in the middle and finally passengers allocated front row seats.

Logic says that's the way to go. In practice, when passengers seated at the rear are called for boarding, others have typically jumped the queue and now occupy seats at the front of the cabin. Some of those passengers will be blocking the aisle as they struggle to hoist carry-ons into the overhead bins, creating choke points for those headed rearwards.

Back in 2008, astrophysicist Jason Steffen used mathematics and computer modelling to propose an improved variation on the traditional boarding method. Starting from the rear of the cabin, those allocated an odd-numbered window seat board first, followed by those in even-numbered window seats, then come the odd-numbered middle seat passengers, the even-numbered middle seaters and finally the same process for those in the aisle seats.

Although the Steffen method proved its worth in an experimental mock-up of a Boeing cabin, slashing boarding times by around half, you might not be surprised to learn that no airline has ever adopted the Steffen method. At least not wholeheartedly, although some airlines are thinking along the same lines.

In mid-2020 Japanese airline ANA introduced a boarding method that divides passengers into six groups. First to board are those in rear window seats followed by rear middle seats, then come passengers in rear aisle seats. This process is then repeated for passengers seated at the front of the cabin.

That system is known by the acronym WILMA, (window, middle, aisle boarding). In an experiment conducted by the MythBusters team, boarding by the WILMA system shaved almost 10 minutes off the boarding time of a single-aisle aircraft compared with the traditional back-to-front method.

The ANA boarding method offers a further refinement since passengers board back-to-front, known as the WILMA zone system. By all reports boarding an ANA aircraft works like a charm. Boarding time is slashed, stress is reduced – but it's probably not going to work more widely because, well, we're not all Japanese. Japan is a well-ordered and disciplined society. Department store shop assistants bow in greeting, pedestrians walk on the right side of the pavement and all scrupulously observe the protocols around shoe-wearing indoors. Obeying rules is coded in the Japanese DNA. Order brings comfort.

We're far less inclined to fall in line. Being told when to board smacks of an afront to our right to do what we like when we like. So what if I board before my zone is called? The gate crew checking boarding passes isn't going to stop me, I'll get settled in early, score lots of empty space in the overhead bins and it's just me – so what's the problem? And when others think the same, chaos ensues. What works for ANA is probably not going to work for Emirates, Garuda, Qantas or Alitalia.

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National characteristics aside, another reason the WILMA system has not been more widely adopted is that some airlines have monetised their boarding process. A few passengers are prepared to pay extra for priority boarding. Therefore it suits the airline if boarding is bothersome. If boarding becomes quicker and smoother, the airline might lose that revenue stream.

Has the coronavirus made a difference?

The new rules around social distancing and mask wearing in the airline industry have imposed a new sense of order on air travel. Does this mean we're more likely to behave more like the Japanese?

As part of its Fly Well anti-coronavirus program introduced in mid-2020 Qantas announced sequenced boarding and disembarkation to minimise crowding aboard its larger aircraft. Aboard one of the airline's A330 aircraft for example, passengers are called for boarding starting from the rear of the aircraft, five rows at a time.

Other airlines have had similar policies in place for several years. Passengers flying with Southwest Airlines get a boarding pass with a group, either A, B or C, and a number between 1-60. When your group is called for boarding, you find your place in the queue, identified by markers for every five numbers, for example 31-35. Monitors at the front of the queue regulate the boarding process, and that diligence is key to the success of any strict boarding method. In reality, few airline gate crew are prepared to stand aside passengers who present for boarding before their zone is called. As soon as passengers realise they can board out of turn with no consequences, they do, and anarchy rules.

Boarding a Virgin Australia flight at Gold Coast Airport for a flight to Sydney on February 18, there was simply an announcement that boarding for the 737-800 was now open, with no order stipulated. On the tarmac, passengers were directed to either the front or rear stairs and getting seated in the three-quarters full cabin was hassle free.

By some accounts the new Qantas boarding process has made a difference. While the fear of coronavirus lingers, it's possible that passengers generally are more compliant. Once the shadow passes, masks come off and a sense of normalcy returns to the air, flyers might not be so obedient. In Melbourne and Sydney, as a sense of normalcy returns, the strict social distancing that has applied on public transport since the height of the pandemic is being ignored during rush hours. Why would air travel be any different?

The lounge lizard

"Would the last remaining passengers on flight X please board now?" That's my boarding call. Until that time, I'm sitting relaxed and comfortable in the economy lounge. There is much to be said for being one of the last to board. No shuffling queue at the gate, a nearly empty airbridge if you time it right, quick passage down the aisle. Why rush to be squished into an uncomfortable seat, and spending at least 10 minutes in a slow-moving line to get there? Sure the overhead bins might be crammed but travel with a modest carry-on that tucks under the seat in front and no worries.

See also: Brace yourself: Long-haul travel may not get going until 2023

See also: What you need to know about the new 'OK to travel' pass airlines are adopting

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