New boarding procedures take off

Airline industry hopes saving time will save money


Readying for an AirTran Airways flight from Boston to Baltimore one recent Sunday evening, the airline's agents called the last three rows of passengers to board. Then three rows in front. Then some more in back. Then the front again.

Accustomed to the traditional back-to-front cattle call, many passengers seemed confused. They lined up at the gate clutching their tickets bingo-style, looking at their numbers with each announcement from the gate agent. The seemingly random, middle-of-the-pack row 20 was last to board.

"It shaves three or four minutes off the boarding process," explained Stan Gadek, AirTran's chief financial officer. "It may take a while for people to understand."

Recent efforts by AirTran and other airlines to rejigger how passengers board in an attempt to save minutes reflect the industry's scramble to wring out new efficiencies as their financial woes mount. Several airlines are operating in bankruptcy, jobs and pensions have been cut, and on-flight food and even pillows have become scarce. Together, the airlines expect to lose up to $10 billion this year.

Meanwhile, the record numbers of passengers since 2004 - often paying less than in years past because of Internet-driven price wars - have sharpened the focus on timely seating.

Delays are costly in terms of worker pay, wasted fuel and lost flights, in addition to customer dissatisfaction. As much as weather and air traffic control, herding 140 people or more aboard and getting them seated and buckled up is a process that affects whether planes take off on time.

The new boarding procedures for some airlines this fall are the latest on a list that includes online check-in from home computers, kiosk check-in at airports and other moves to get everyone through the process faster, which was complicated by security measures instituted after the Sept. 11 attacks.

AirTran adopted its anti-bottleneck system, which also includes larger overhead bins. United Airlines launched zone seating - called WilMA, not for the recent hurricane, but as shorthand for window, middle, aisle. And then there's the granddaddy of nontraditional seating: the free-for-all employed by Southwest Airlines since its beginning, in which passengers board in groups without assigned seats.

Each airline has claimed success so far, with precious minutes saved on each flight. Still, aviation experts and many passengers say, the airlines aren't done yet, because on-time arrivals generally have not improved.

In 2003, flights were on time 82 percent of the time, according to government statistics. In 2004, that dropped to 78.3 percent. For the 12 months ending in August 2005, the average on-time rate was 77.4 percent. An airplane is "on time" when it arrives within 15 minutes of the scheduled time.

Out of 20 carriers included in U.S. Department of Transportation calculations for the 2005 on-time numbers, AirTran ranked 17th. United ranked fifth. Southwest came in fourth.

But there is more to customer satisfaction than that, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating conducted by the University of Nebraska's Aviation Institute and the Wichita State University W. Frank Barton School of Business. Last year, the report listed AirTran, Southwest and United second, third and fourth, respectively, in overall quality, which also factors in such things as baggage handling and bumped passengers.

JetBlue Airways, which ranked No. 1 and flies from Washington Dulles International Airport, boards through front and back doors at airports that allow it. That requires half the passengers to walk downstairs and outside on the tarmac rather than through the Jetway. All rows are called at the same time. That helps the airline load in less than 10 minutes, compared with 15 or so if boarding is through the front door only and passengers board back to front.

Dean E. Headley, an associate professor at Wichita's business school and an author of the quality report, said airlines held onto their boarding ways for so long because they "get into a box" and don't come up with innovative ways to improve service. He still believes, however, that back-to-front is the most efficient method of boarding.

The baggage is often the problem. JetBlue, for example, has a faster boarding time than others because its staff helps passengers lift luggage into overhead bins. On other airlines, flight attendants often resist aiding people who carry aboard more than they can handle.

It might be more cost-effective to hire help than burn fuel waiting for passengers to settle in, Headley said. Labor and fuel are the two top costs for airlines.

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