Air Canada adopts new boarding policy, with five...
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Nov 15, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Air Canada adopts new boarding policy, with five zones

For years, airlines have struggled to figure out best way to board a plane. Air Canada is adopting a new five-zone policy designed to simplify process


Grab your boarding pass, and carry-on bag, and hurry up and wait.

That’s a common complaint among passengers when it comes time to board a plane, so Air Canada, like many other airlines, is hoping a new system will be a better way.

Using a five-zone boarding system, the airline hopes it will mean a smoother process, as well as ensure business class and super-elite frequent fliers still get priority.

The airline is scheduled to roll out the new model in early December in time for the holiday travel rush, after ruling out other methods including free-for-all boarding, and boarding those without roller-bag carry-ons first.

“Boarding is very complex for us, especially since we have so many different groups of customers,” said Andrew Yiu, Air Canada’s director of product specifications, who was in charge of testing different models.

Under the current system, the number of rows boarding can vary depending on how full a plane is. As well, on some routes, many top-tier customers are eligible for priority boarding, essentially creating bottlenecks at the start.

“On a lot of flights with busy business markets, such as Toronto to Montreal or Toronto to Vancouver, we have a very high component of top-tier customers who are eligible for priority boarding,” Yiu said.

“Whenever we call priority boarding, you’re going to see 60 or 70 people get up, ready to board the aircraft,” he said. “Our top super elites are saying ‘You are giving me this priority boarding benefit, but there are 60 people in front of me, trying to get on.’”

Under the new plan, every boarding pass will have a zone number listed with the goal of simplifying the process, especially on international routes, where there may be language challenges. It should also reduce complicated boarding announcements in English, French and often a third route language.

Zone 1 will be for those travelling in business class and super elite frequent flyers, and Zone 2 will be for those travelling in premium economy, other frequent flyers as well as those who hold certain credit cards that grant priority boarding.

Any passengers who need extra time to get to their seats or families travelling with young children will then board.

The remaining economy travellers will be divided evenly into three zones, boarding from back to front, with the view that aisles are less likely to be clogged by passengers waiting for others to find their seats.

Yiu said the zone method didn’t yield a time savings, but it offered a better customer experience and made it easier for customer-service agents to enforce the boarding processing with zone numbers.

“What we find is it is easy to change a process, but there is an enforcement component if we want this to work in the long term,” he said.

For years, airlines have struggled to find a better way to board their planes. Turnaround times, from when a plane is loaded and unloaded is critical, since airlines only make money when planes are in the air.

But boarding times have actually increased by more than 50 per cent since the 1970s, down to as low as nine passengers per minute, according to a 1998 Boeing study.

That may be because passengers are trying to bring more carry-on luggage with the introduction of checked baggage fees or simply because planes are much fuller these days.

Airlines have tried different techniques including detailed queuing rules at Southwest Airlines, which has no assigned seating.

Jason Steffen, an American physicist, was so frustrated by the logjams to get to his seat that he crunched the data, and devised a technique. He figured the best method was having window seats board first, beginning at the back of the plane, and separated by a gap of two rows. They should be followed by those in middle seats and then aisle seats, always separated by two rows.

Since last winter, KLM has been testing a similar method on three European routes, dubbed smart boarding, where passengers are giving a boarding number at the gate, based on their seat in the aircraft – window seats at the rear, followed by midsection and then aisle seats.

KLM spokesperson Joost Ruempol said in an email that the system is still being tested, but “it makes the boarding process run more smoothly and our passengers are very happy with it.”

In July, WestJet Airlines moved to a four-zone boarding system, after those with special needs or those with young children get priority boarding.

The first zone covers those sitting in premium economy seats or frequent fliers, followed by those at the rear of the aircraft, usually seven to 10 rows. Then passengers in the mid-cabin board, followed by passengers seated at the front of the plane behind premium economy.

WestJet spokeswoman Brie Ogle said the change hasn’t necessarily made a difference in the time it takes to board, but gate staff and flight attendants like it because it more structured and organized.

“It allows flight attendants to actively manage the entire cabin and the carry-on baggage loading process much more efficiently,” she added in an email.

Porter Airlines, which flies smaller turboprop planes that seat 70 passengers, generally lets passengers board when they wish, although on fuller flights, it boards back to front.

Toronto Star

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