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New Airline Boarding Process: Improvement or Distraction?

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Process improvement consulting for airline boarding is a regular dream of many business consultants. A program from American Airlines is reviewed in one of the best headlines we’ve ever seen.

Let’s just start with the article title, from the headline-writing geniuses over at Gadling. Americans New Boarding Process Could Probably Maybe Not Speed Up Boarding. They write:

Coming soon, passengers without overhead bags will be allowed to board the plane prior to other (but after preferred) passengers. With no bags, they can quickly disburse onto the plane and into their seats without clogging the aisle. The next batch of passengers with bags will hopefully then be less hindered when loading.

This might seem like the kind of process improvement and smart thinking that the airlines need. But Forbes magazine notes that the approach has been considered elsewhere:

In fact, Virgin America has already tried and abandoned American’s new process. “It is more efficient and you do get a lot of people on the aircraft more quickly,” said Virgin America CEO David Cush, in an interview. “But it’s difficult to police. You get into a debate about how big is something that fits under your seat.”

We covered the early parts of this study in an earlier article on process improvement at American Airlines, where we noted that this problem has apparently been solved for years. Unfortunately, most carriers don’t have the organizational culture to be able make the kinds of changes necessary. Imagine how boarding would go in one of the following scenarios:

  • Passengers board by seat, not row: All window seats back to front, all middle seats back to front, and then all aisle seats back to front.
  • Overhead bins are professionally loaded: Passengers keep their carry-on luggage on their lap for a few minutes and trained airline staff unlock bins, load bags in parallel.
  • Pre-formed shells are loaded in the terminal: Where each shell fits into a corresponding multi-seat compartment, and are installed like torpedoes by airline personnel before passengers board.
  • Carry-ons determine seat position: Passengers receive seat assignments dynamically at the gate to distribute luggage evenly throughout the cabin.
Process Improvement: Airplane Boarding

© Flickr user CLDoyle

Not all of these ideas may work. But the fact that you haven’t heard of them before—and the fact that American’s PR department is NOT frantically publishing video of disastrous seating experiments—shows that process improvement is not really about what achieves the best result.

After all, if they were really constantly experimenting to create a better passenger experience, wouldn’t they want to tell us about it?

Rather, business process improvement is actually about the culture of change. And if one of our first articles about the business culture at American Airlines remains accurate, it’s no surprise this new boarding process represents a tiny shift and “probably-maybe-not really” any change in the long run at all.

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