Jun. 18--Cash-short airlines scrutinizing the tiniest of details for increased efficiency have found that the familiar old "back-to-front" method of boarding a plane, starting with the rows farthest back, is just plain backward.
"The way we were doing it was probably the slowest way we could possibly do it," said Mark Ahasic, director of operational planning for JetBlue, the discount carrier.
But what should replace it?
America West uses the "reverse pyramid" method; Delta the "rotating zone;" and United the "window-middle-aisle" method. Each claims to shave precious minutes off the time an aircraft sits at the gate.
Jet Blue, which is introducing service to Pittsburgh at the end of the month, conducted trials on more than 100 actual flights as well as on a computer and found the method that was seemingly the most chaotic was the most efficient.
On a 156-seat plane, passengers boarding all at once, after the elderly and those needing special assistance, took 17 minutes to settle into their assigned seats, about a minute faster than any other method Jet Blue tried.
Jet Blue calls the method "random boarding" and switched to it systemwide in April. "It sounds worse than it is," Mr. Ahasic said. "It's all about simplicity. There's diffusion, and people disperse to wherever their row is, wherever their seats are."
Jet Blue said that, in airports that allow it to use both the front and the rear doors, it can board the plane in 13.5 minutes. In late May, Northwest changed from "front to back" boarding to random boarding, although it boards special assistance, first-class and elite-status passengers before the rest of the plane.
One reason beyond speed that appealed to both Jet Blue and Northwest was that the random method frees up boarding agents to do things other than announcing boarding groups every few minutes.
"From our point of view, it's less labor intensive," said Dean Breest, a spokesman for Northwest, which found that the system even worked well for jumbo jets. The only Northwest flights in the United States and Asia that do not use random boarding are its small commuter planes.
In the past year, United, AirTran and Northwest have changed their boarding procedures, with US Airways scheduled to change next year.
Airlines care about boarding speed because it affects "turn time," how long it takes to unload an airplane after its arrival at the gate and to prepare it for departure again.
"As long as [a plane] is sitting there on the ground, it's not generating any revenue," said David Swiegeria, president of AeroEcon, an airline consulting firm based in Vienna, Va.
Turn time involves maintenance, cleaning the plane and loading baggage, but passenger onloading and offloading usually accounts for whether the time is fast or slow.
Despite all the research, there's no consensus among the airlines on the best way to avoid bottlenecks among child-toting, luggage-lugging, aisle-blocking passengers.
Tim Lindemann, managing director of airport services for US Airways, has gone further than most in seeking an answer. In 2003, when he held the same position for America West, he commissioned a study by engineers at Arizona State University.
The researchers first conducted elaborate computer simulations that tried to minimize both "aisle interferences" (passengers toward the front of the plane blocking passengers trying to get to the back) and "seat interferences" (passengers in aisle seats getting up for passengers in window seats, blocking the aisle in the process).
United, AirTran and Northwest have changed their boarding procedures, with US Airways scheduled to change next year.
The airline last week embarked on a trial that could make it look more like its competitors.