Airlines’ Marketing Departments Warp Us

The airline industry’s marketing departments have us eating right out of the palms of their hands at the expense of quick and efficient boarding of airplanes. Kudos to them, and shame on us. Because of these crazy status programs and perceived values of different seats on planes, we can no longer get on the plane in a fast and effective manner. Rather than focusing on seat placement and seat value, the solution to efficient airline boarding lies in overhead bin space value. Let’s take a look.

All Coach Seats Are the Same

All seats on all planes all get to the same destination at almost exactly the same time. There are some among us who would argue that the rear seats get to their destinations before the front seats, but none the less, any difference is minuscule. Additionally, all the seats in coach are exactly the same, it’s their locations that differ. Yet, the marketing departments have managed to manipulate us into thinking that airlines coach seats have different values.

History of Boarding

Let’s take a look at the history of how airline marketing has done this. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, we boarded the plane from the rear to the front based on whether or not we smoked. Smokers got on the plane first because their seats were in the rear of the plane. People filed into the plane one row at a time from the back to the front. No one had to stumble over anyone. As a flyer, you knew you weren’t in the smoking section because the ashtray in your seat’s arm was glued shut. This was the only difference in the seats.

Deregulation Birthed Frequent Flyer Programs

For a while, we continued to board planes from the rear to the front. Deregulation happened in 1978, and suddenly marketing departments had competition to manage, and frequent flyer programs were born. Originally, marketing departments focused on how friendly their flight attendants were or how classy their jets appeared. They then moved to differences in meals and service. When planes began to individually ban smoking, another differentiation occurred, but it was quickly squashed when the FAA instituted the smoking ban fleet wide in 1990. 

Seats and Overhead Bin Space Become Premiums

With smoking banned and meals disappearing, marketing departments began developing additional privileges to their frequent flyer programs. No longer were free flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars enough. Plane boarding became a target, and the marketing departments developed complicated systems to get their most loyal customers on the planes first and in front. They were able to sell something that is crazy–the idea that if you get on the plane first, you’ll get a better seat, you’ll find a better spot for your bag, and you’ll get off the plane faster.

Middle Seats Have Minimal Value

As customers, we quickly learned and agreed that seats near the front of the plane are most desirable, windows and aisles are highly requested, and the only person who wants a middle seat is a child wanting to sit between parents. People began to pay for these perceived premiums. Front-of-the-plane seats, aisle seats, and window seats became commodious as did overhead luggage space. Thus, customers became willing to pay not only for perceived “better” seats, we also were willing to pay for location, too.

Efficient Boarding Disappears

With the addition of perceived value on premium seats and bin space, the efficient boarding of planes fell to the wayside. Now, customers load planes based on zones and complicated algorithms based on status.  Even though customers may have paid for better seats, frequent flyer levels can trump payment, allowing those with more “status” to board sooner via special lanes and carpet colors.

Enter the Clowns

Watching the boarding process from the gate’s seats is a comical routine. The highest ranking flyer on the flight promenading through the special red carpets is followed by the cheapest seat buyer or lowest status member at the end of the line. There is no significant reason that anyone boards the flight first except that the marketing department has created a ridiculous need in the eye of the flyer to have the best seat and to board first. Good for them, shame on us for buying into it.

Boarding Science Exists

The airlines have researched the boarding process extensively, as they realize the quicker they can turn a plane, the more revenue they can generate. If they truly believed in this premise and wanted to actually monetize it, they would adopt some of the science regarding plane boarding. But instead of turning planes quicker and adopting a more efficient boarding process, they cater to the marketing departments’ successful twisting of value by continuing with the fancy patronizing of its frequent fliers. They’ve now figured out there’s more money in charging for checked bags, which likely produces more revenue than from the revenue gained from quick plane turn-around, effectively eliminating any incentive to lower turnaround times.

Yet, Boarding Is Congested

Therefore, the boarding process has become slower and more congested than ever before. Now, in order to save a few bucks, customers carry their bags on. This has produced an even slower boarding process and upped the ante even greater for those willing to pay to board first and find the coveted overhead bin space.

Board from the Rear

Let’s stop the ridiculousness.

I propose we return to boarding the plane from the rear. Folks know where they are going, and there’s not the craziness of stumbling over each other and waiting for people to load the bins to get past traffic jams. If necessary, the marketing departments could still up-sell front seats, but eliminate the need to board early to get good overhead bin space. How? Designate overhead bin space and limit customers to one carry-on.

Designate Overhead Bin Space

In the overhead bins, designate where customers should put their one bag. Put seat numbers in the overhead bin space letting customers know that their bag must fit in the designated spot. It’s a simple puzzle. The maximum square footage of a carry on is (x). The airlines know the average amount of bags carried on and how much square footage there is in the bins, (y). Thus, multiply x times y and  get the amount of total bag square footage that can be brought on to the plane.

Second Bag Goes to the Cargo Hold

When checking into the flight, ask customers if they are bringing a carry-on. Once the maximum carry-on space is filled based on the formula above, require customers to check bags for free. If necessary, allow some secret sauce into the formula that caters to frequent fliers. Better yet, as a benefit, allow frequent fliers access to the bin space square footage during the check-in phase. If  customers aren’t frequent fliers, they only get overhead bin space if there’s space available after frequent fliers have checked in.

Efficiency Returns

Thus, by getting folks quickly to their seats via the boarding-from-the-rear process and by clearly designating and limiting exactly where carry-ons must go, boarding becomes simple, streamlined and efficient. Planes turn quicker, customers spend less time in line, overhead bin space peck and hunt goes away, and we all do our airline boarding quicker and get in our seats faster, despite the marketing departments’ attempt to mess it up.

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Chris and Steve, the empty-nesting nomads, travel the world, one month at a time, housesitting and Airbnbing along the way. We uncover urban walks, great hikes, and vegan/vegetarian eats that other guide books miss. And we throw in a bit about Forex trading along the way.

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