Skip to main content

Airline boarding: how to end the game of thrones fight for baggage space

By October 29, 2023No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)


As a frequent business traveler, I was excited to see that United Airlines has devised a way to fix what is one of my – and most other business travelers’ – biggest pet peeves.

No, it’s not sitting next to that guy wearing open-toed sandals. Or the person next to me who brought onboard a large rotisserie chicken with gravy for lunch, or the loud person conducting a business meeting on her cellphone until being asked – for the third time – to put it away by the flight attendant. It’s the boarding process. It’s awful.

Boarding a plane is a game of thrones where the throne isn’t your seat, but the limited baggage space above it. It is stressful, annoying, too time-consuming and borders on violent. Now United Airlines says it can change that.

According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, the airline claims that – after numerous studies – Wilma is the way. The Wilma method – window, middle, aisles – sits passengers in a way that supposedly shaves time off boarding by keeping the aisle free. Any frequent business traveler will tell you that this is nonsense.

For starters, priority customers who prefer to sit in the aisle will yell. People with disabilities need to be boarded earlier, as do the military (thank you for your service) and unaccompanied children. There will be so many exceptions to this methodology as to render Wilma meaningless.

Sadly the truth is the entire industry isn’t looking for big changes. They’re just trying to shave a few minutes off of each flight with the hopes that the final result will allow accumulated time savings by the end of the travel day and a more profitable company.

And that’s the problem. It’s a Band-Aid. A short-term solution that’s destined to fail. But it’s even more than that: it’s a clear indication of America’s innovative decline where risk is avoided at all costs. Where are the big thinkers? Unfortunately, they’re definitely not employed in the airline industry.

The airline industry is avoiding risk by avoiding its real problem. Which is not the airlines. It’s the airplanes they use. Airplanes need a redesign similar to a Tesla: instead of one door for hundreds of passengers to fight their way through, why doesn’t the entire side of the plane flip open up like a … well … a Tesla! (or a DeLorean if you’re not an Elon Musk fan).

It’s not like this isn’t done elsewhere. Board a rollercoaster at Six Flags or a boat on the Pirates of Caribbean ride at Disney World and you’ll see all guests getting on and off at pretty much the same time. The people running these parks are savants at crowd management. Why are they not working for the airlines? If they were they’d be investing in newly redesigned planes that can board passengers like an amusement park ride.

Of course there are major engineering challenges. But think about the impact. Passengers would simply line up by their rows and then board all at once. Boom! The giant “door” then flaps down and the plane is off and running. This would not just save minutes. It would cumulatively save hours! And boarding this way – like a subway car or a Disney ride – would so speed up the process that a single gate could handle multiple more planes in a much, much shorter period of time.

All the boarding strategies that airlines have unsuccessfully attempted over the years represent nothing more than the laziness and risk-averse nature of today’s business leaders. Wilma will be no different. We need bolder thinking and bigger changes to position us for the future. Redesigning airplanes is something that would not only affect millions of lives but contribute billions in added profits to a beleaguered industry.

In the meantime, I’ll keep fighting for my baggage space. Let the games begin.

Skip to content