Airlines have devised a number of ruthless cost-cutting strategies, from surcharges for extra bags to "standing seats" that force passengers to lean into a saddle-like chair. (Following a storm of complaints, that last idea never got off the ground.) The latest innovation, from American Airlines, is more about speed than cost, however. American has decided that boarding passengers in a random fashion is faster than its former policy of boarding passengers sitting in the back of the plane first, before those in the front. Here, a guide to this new seating scheme:
How does random boarding work?
Economy passengers are assigned to boarding groups based on their check-in time, not their seat position, so when it's time to board, those who checked in earlier board first regardless of where they're sitting. This alleviates gridlock: "You definitely will not have 24 people in four rows boarding [and jockeying for overhead bin space] at the same time," says Scott Santoro, director of airport consulting for American Airlines, quoted by the Los Angeles Times.
How successful is this new boarding policy?
Significantly, if not dramatically. American Airlines, which recently implemented the boarding policy after a two-year study, claims that it shaves three to four minutes off the typical boarding time of 20 to 25 minutes. And some passengers have noticed that planes are leaving the gate more quickly: "Boarding was pretty quick," says Rebecca Mallett in Bizmology.
Is everyone happy with this strategy?
No. The Association of Professional Flight Attendants has slammed the new boarding process. "More often than not, the result is congested aisles and flight attendants having to explain to bewildered and already stressed passengers why there is complete chaos in the cabin," according to the group's website. Note that flight attendants' pay doesn't begin until after boarding has concluded — from their point of view, the less they have to manage the process, the better.
Can the system be gamed?
Of course. Pre-printing boarding passes and checking in with a smartphone well before the flight improves your chances of getting assigned to an earlier boarding group. American's "Express Seating" option, which gets you into the first boarding group and a seat at the front of the plane, is available for an extra fee. As always, premium flyers (first and business class, etc.) always board before economy flyers.
What are other airlines doing?
Paying close attention. Though a few other airlines, like Southwest, already have a similar first-come, first-seated seating policy, if American's strategy succeeds, expect to see random boarding spread throughout the industry. Other airlines have adopted a "window-to-aisle" boarding strategy, which American's research also found time-saving, but not as swift as their new random-seating process.