A Product Manager Fixes the Plane Boarding Process

Even when I'm boarding a plane, I consider how a product manager could make the process better. I think I have a real problem, dear readers.

I've written about user experience problems with airlines before (while I was stuck at Mexico City's airport for entirely too long during a pilot strike), and there's definitely a lot of room for improvement. Outside of Southwest and European airline operators like EasyJet, innovation is slooooow in the airline industry, even with processes such as boarding.

As I was waiting in line (in peasant Zone 3) to head to San Francisco this past week, and as hundreds of people scrambled to board the plane in an attempt-to-be-organized-but-still-completely-chaotic manner, the product manager in me went into 'improvement mode.'

If you were a product manager at a big airline, how would you improve the boarding process?


Let's do some ground work:

1 - Define the Problem(s)

  • Everyone wants to board as soon as possible. Why? So they can have a place for their too-big-to-actually-be-a-carry-on bag. Related: People don't like to check their bags because they're afraid of them getting lost, and also because it takes too damn long to retrieve it once you land.
  • Airlines give away premium memberships like candy, so half the plane now is in the pre-boarding group.
  • People with assigned middle and aisle seats have to get up to let window seat passengers in, after they've already sat down and gotten situated.
  • People seated in the front of the plane create a bottleneck in the line while getting situated, as people seated in the back try to get to their seats.

2 - Define the Goal

What does the perfect boarding experience look like? 

  • Less waiting in line; less pushing and shoving in the line.
  • Certainty in that my carry-on will have overhead space. 
  • Quick and efficient - boarding, if done correctly, seems like it should take 10 minutes for a domestic flight.

3 - Consider the Constraints

Airlines are required to follow certain FTA regulations - that's why people with children and disabilities are required to board first, regardless of premium or economy  status.


Ideas for Improvement:

1 - Board the plane in a logical workflow.

I'm no math whiz, but I can tell you the most logical way to board a plane is:

  1. Back to front - window seats first
  2. Then back to front - middle seats
  3. Then aisle seats on one side
  4. Then aisle seats on the last side + stragglers

Following this workflow, no aisle and middle-seat passengers should have to get up to let someone in, and no passengers assigned to row 38 are waiting for someone in row 6 to stash their 78-pound-roller-board in the overhead bin.

I really don't understand why airlines haven't implemented said workflow.

2 - Set a limit on premium boarding.

PSA for airlines: When everyone is a premium member, it doesn't seem like a perk anymore.

It also slows down boarding because the lines for boarding groups 1 and 2 are really, really long. Find something else to give to your premium passengers for free. 


3- Reinvent gate-checking into a coveted, premium service.

Many airlines have tried charging for carry-ons. This is a negative incentive - and it pisses people off. (Southwest is very aware of this, and it's why their "Bags Fly Free" campaign has been so successful.)

Rather than penalizing customers for bringing on a carry-on, why not try positively incentivizing customers to gate-check?

Let passengers who have gate-checked off the plane first, and have their bags ready for them as soon as they're de-boarding. This is usually the case anyways, and honestly, I always appreciate it when I DO gate-check.

Why was I so scared of gate-checking, I wonder. This is great - I didn't have to lug my giant bag around! 

So why not reinvent gate-checking and make it feel like a 'carry-on valet?'

And thus my rant on the airline boarding process ends. Onto the next real-work experience that irks me, which could be fixed with some tactical product management skills!