Swimming upstream

March 10, 2010

Ok, so I'll try just a bit to keep this from turning into another airline rant - I really will. Bear with me here, there's a design angle in here. Somewhere. Either that or an excuse for an airline rant. We'll see.

I've been flying quite a bit for work lately. And like many travelers I've noticed a pretty profound change in air travel ever since the major airlines began charging to check baggage.

At first, I didn't really think through how this was going to impact me. I go to pretty great lengths to always carry on my luggage, so I just assumed I'd have a bit more company. I do. What I hadn't counted on is how this would impact the workflow in getting passengers on and off planes.

If your luggage is stored behind you, when the plane lands you become a human salmon - trying to fight your way against deplaning traffic.

It seems like about 25% more luggage is being carted onto the planes. Of course overhead luggage bins were already at about 110% capacity. Savvy travelers now know this and are becoming increasingly attuned toward avoiding sitting further forward than the bin their luggage is in. One quickly realizes that if your luggage ends up stored behind you, when the plane lands you become a human salmon - trying to fight your way against deplaning traffic to get back to your bags. Since planes are still boarded from the back - and people are loath to have their luggage behind them - the first passengers on the plane are inevitably placing their bags in bins more to the front of the plane to avoid the concern of reaching their seat and having no open bins. As the plane begins to fill people get more and more desperate to find a bin as the last passengers on the plane (i.e. me) are generally faced with having to fight their way down the entire aisle - well past their seat - and still fear finding no place to store their bags. As the aircraft unloads the process is reversed - just as awkwardly - as passengers in the rear migrate towards their bags in front and the ones in back try to fight against the flow. Chaos.

Believe it or not, designers and engineers spend lots of time thinking about things like this. How subtle changes to input conditions can create interesting downstream impacts. So I'm left to wonder if the whole process of boarding needs to be rethought. I used to believe that planes should consider boarding by AISLE - not row (i.e. board all left side WINDOW seats followed by right side WINDOW seats followed by left side CENTER seats, etc.) This would have theoretically allowed people to get on without having to crawl over each other. Of course that creates problems for couples and families with children so it's not ideal. I'm now wondering if planes needed to be boarded from the FRONT to the BACK. This still allows the airlines to board their coveted first class passengers first but also theoretically solves the bin hoarding problem as people are more likely to find a bind closer to their seat. Would it work? What do you think?

Under any circumstances I guess I'll still try to pack smaller and lighter. Well that and study some salmon and see if I can learn how they do it!