how is a free-for-all faster?
October 30, 2008 2:40 PM   Subscribe

Does eliminating assigned seating reduce boarding times for airplanes? And if so, why?

For the first time I recently took a flight without assigned seating. It seemed really chaotic and slow to me, what with everyone clustering and jostling for position waiting for them to start boarding, and then on the plane with people randomly sitting wherever and holding up the whole aisle putting luggage in overheads or backtracking to find sets of seats together. It also seemed like most people who were rushing to get on were wanting to sit in the front, which further slowed things down as everyone behind them had to wait for them to get out of the aisle and sit down before going on.

I was curious so I did some googling and found some info like this article (bottom of article) that claims it is faster to eliminate assigned seating. Can anyone tell me if this is true, and if so, why?
posted by vodkaboots to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If people would go to the back of the plane, instead of the front, I think it would work great. But they don't. So everyone behind them gets to wait for them to put their stuff away. In my experience it takes forever to board.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:56 PM on October 30, 2008

By "faster" they probably mean "more efficient".

Let's say a plane has 300 seats, and 300 passengers. You can use a few extra keystrokes at the check-in desk - or wherever - to assign each of those passengers to each of those seats, querying each passenger as to whether they prefer fore or aft, window or aisle, and so forth, which, at say 2 minutes a passenger, is an extra ten hours of administration on top of all the usual schmear. Then you have a last-minute aisle seat cancellation and another passenger expressed their desire for an aisle seat but you only had a window seat available and now you've got the aisle seat so now you can reassign seating and, man, what a headache.

Or you just have 300 seats, 300 passengers, and let god sort 'em out.

It's just another example of corporate externalising. Why bother assigning seats for your customers when, well, they're all adults, aren't they? They can figure it out for themselves. We've gotta get this bird in the air! Also peanuts are now five dollars.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:56 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes its faster, the general consensus is that you distribute the passenger actions of stowing, getting settled etc down the length of the plane instead of the old row by row method which has a knot of people getting settled in at once.

There are other techniques Loading an airliner is rocket science
posted by bitdamaged at 2:58 PM on October 30, 2008

I've flown Southwest a LOT over the last few years. The one thing I've found is that the time savings of the free-for-all don't come from everyone getting into their seats on the plane. By making it a free-for-all, people want to get on the plane earlier to get a good seat. When I have a reserved seat, I take my time, and I don't board the plane until the last possible second. Why sit on the plane when I can be sitting in a much comfier seat a the gate? With Southwest, I always make it a point to get there early and get on that plane ASAP to try to get a better seat. The moment they open the door, I'm standing in line and ready to board. I'm pretty certain that is the big difference.
posted by AaRdVarK at 3:17 PM on October 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

Hrmm--West Jet has assigned seats but lets people board all at once, rather than air canada's method of boarding rows 20-30, then 10-19, then 1-9...seems like WestJet's method would be the fastest of all?
posted by stray at 3:18 PM on October 30, 2008

Yes, Ryanair in the UK does this too. They're the global leaders in making life as unpleasant as necessary for passengers in order to save the business as much money as possible, thereby enabling them to offer ridiculously cheap ticket prices. The lack of assigned seating keeps people in a state of agitation, in my experience, that's no fun but that does keep them near the gate, punctual, raring to board.

Another point: assigned seating, boarding from the back by row number, might be much more efficient than it currently is if only airlines would enforce the row number boarding process. One of my greatest annoyances as an airline passenger is waiting around for them to call "rows 35 to 45", or whatever, when people with tickets in those rows are blatantly boarding anyway, and not being turned back. The whole length of the plane is consequently obstructed by people putting their bags away and preparing for flight.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:26 PM on October 30, 2008

Crash boarding makes people agitated so they rush, which is almost certainly the real reason it might turn out faster. But back-to-front boarding definitely makes it more civilized, and I bet those customers have a better experience that probably benefits the airline more in the long term.

But that NYT article is a mess. It suggests, among other contradictions, that any businessperson who's ever missed their flight by a few minutes will appreciate speedier boarding... which makes no sense at all. I know I'd be happier if all flights were 10 minutes late departing. Forever.
posted by rokusan at 3:34 PM on October 30, 2008

Great page at the University of Colorado with animated simulations of the various methods, which airlines use which, and references to journal papers. They say random boarding is the fastest method.
posted by smackfu at 3:46 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oops, sorry, it says random boarding is faster than back-to-front, but there are other fancier zone methods that are faster than both.
posted by smackfu at 3:50 PM on October 30, 2008

I flew Precision Air in Tanzania a couple of weeks ago - no assigned seats and about 120 people boarding a full flight. (The typical chaos of an African airport.) But the plane was boarded from the BACK and I found that everyone moved towards the front to sit, facilitating an exceptionally fast boarding process.
posted by meerkatty at 4:10 PM on October 30, 2008

Remember Freddy Laker? As I recall on his Laker Express flights between Newark and DC, there was a grid on the floor outside the gate. First come first served - the first person got to choose their seat on the grid and the back of the grid was the front of the airplane. You all stood on your grid until there were enough passengers to fill the plane and then they marched you onto the plane with the rear seats filling first. Then you took off. It was more like a subway than a regular flight. It was so long ago that I probably have some of this wrong (like perhaps they then let you fill from the front). It was brutal, the seats were small, but it was really, really cheap, and pretty efficient. Maybe somebody who remembers this a bit better can correct me here.
posted by caddis at 6:45 PM on October 30, 2008

West Jet has assigned seats but lets people board all at once, rather than air canada's method of boarding rows 20-30, then 10-19, then 1-9...seems like WestJet's method would be the fastest of all?

This is the standard method for boarding here in Australia and seems to work well, although you still get the holdup at the front of the plane while the front seat passengers take their seats... In most places they also try passengers into two groups, with row 1 - 15 boarding at the front, and rows 16 - 30 boarding at the back, which seems to work well until someone in row 30 gets in via the front door!

I would think that this presents a nice compromise between NO seating assignments (which must be chaos, with people moving backwards and forwards looking for the best place to sit) and seating in rows of 10, which would seem less efficient at the gate.

In fact, this is what I thought you meant by free-for-all, but no assigned seating is just madness!
posted by ranglin at 1:20 AM on October 31, 2008

People who know they will have the seat they want take the time getting to the gate.

Or at least they used to. Now, everyone is so worried that the plane won't even take off, they huddle around before it even lands at the gate.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:41 PM on October 31, 2008

Now, everyone is so worried that the plane won't even take off, they huddle around before it even lands at the gate.

No, they just want to make sure that they get on early enough to get their bags into the overhead luggage compartment and the recent trend towards charging for checked bags only makes this phenomena worse. It's not the money for those checked bags that bothers the frequent flier, it's the change in behavior that it elicits among their fellow travelers. Some people might say, why should the frequent flier care as they get onto the planes first. Well, they do care because they all sit in the same section up near the front and those bins fill up within minutes of boarding. Sit in row 7 and put your bag in the bin over row 15, oh great. Then the poor schmucks flying super steerage (no elite status, ticket in the rear) they get on and wonder why there is no room in the overhead bins to put the big and fragile hat, art, whatever that they bought on vacation and want to get home without damage. Gate check that and see what happens. First class is not a panacea either. Everyone in first class is carrying their bags on and those bins can fill up, even with less seats per bin. Don't be the last person on the plane if you have a large carry-on bag even if you are in first. The airlines hate their customers.
posted by caddis at 9:09 PM on October 31, 2008

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