I WAS waiting to drop off to sleep during the flight home from my latest trip when I suddenly decided the aspect of flying I like the least is the boarding.
There's a certain etiquette to getting off aircraft which means that - apart from the jackasses who leap up and push their way down the aisle - you disembark smoothly in the order you're seated.
Once the plane has actually taken off, I usually find myself relaxing, knowing the journey is underway, and even in the most cramped economy-class seats I'm usually able to make the most of the food and entertainment and manage a snooze.
But getting on the plane, I mused, is almost always inefficient and frustrating. The aisles are blocked by other passengers trying to fit a pile of bags into the overhead lockers or people with window seats waiting for the folk already in the aisle seats to let them in.
So it was quite a coincidence, when I awoke, to read (in the Economist magazine) about Chicago astrophysicist Jason Steffen, who has taken time out from thinking about dark matter and extrasolar planets to develop - and test - an alternative system of boarding planes.
A frustrated passenger himself, his system involves boarding by seat type (windows first, aisles last) in alternating rows, so it's easier for people to stow their luggage and there's no need to climb over someone already seated.
In the test, involving 72 people boarding a mock plane with a single aisle and 12 rows of seats, this system took half the time of the standard one. And, as he points out, in a full-sized plane the time saved should be even greater.
I had made a note to follow this up when I returned but, lo and behold, our sister paper the Herald on Sunday already had a story that Air New Zealand had introduced a variation on this system on domestic flights (there are apparently no plans to use it on international flights): passengers in window seats are invited to board first, followed by a general boarding call.
Spokeswoman Marie Hosking said it was difficult to quantify how much quicker it was to board this way, as it varied according to type of aircraft and how full the flight was, "However, it's fair to say that this method saves a couple of minutes' boarding time."
Hmmm. Every little helps. But that sounds like a disappointingly small saving compared with Steffen's test run. I suspect that may be partly due to the fact that Air NZ says it doesn't enforce the boarding order, which rather undermines the whole idea.
I also suspect a reluctance to actually enforce rules means airlines are unlikely ever to try the full Steffen system. Unfortunately, if you ask for people with window seats in even-numbered rows to board and half the passengers race for the gate, most of the benefit will be be lost.
Still, Air NZ is flying me to Wellington in a couple of weeks, so I'll get a chance to see how the new system works in practice. It certainly can't be worse than the present chaos.
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