Book excerpt: Airline pilot and author Patrick Smith looks to end the "nightmare" of boarding

New edition of his book Cockpit Confidential has much to entertain those who love airplanes and those who don't

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      Airline pilots are all business when they’re at work, focused wholly on the nuts-and-bolts process of keeping a massive object afloat in the sky.

      But Patrick Smith, who’s done the job for 28 years running now, isn’t averse to expressing passionate opinion when he’s not at the controls. Smith is the author of the popular series Ask the Pilot, and the new revised-and-expanded edition of his book Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel has dozens of short, clear, highly entertaining sections that will fascinate the aerophobe (“Fear and Reason: Encouragement for Nervous Flyers”; “What’s That Sudden Roar All About?”) as much as the aerophile (“What Are Those Canoe-Shaped Pods Under the Wings?”; “Can a Jetliner Perform Aerobatics?”).

      He also has plenty to say to the average ticketholder, who’s likely more concerned with the lab-chimp-like frustrations of commercial air travel than with the physics of it. The following excerpt from Cockpit Confidential offers a good example as it replies to the reader-submitted question “The boarding process has become a nightmare. What could airlines—and passengers—do to make it better?”

      None of us enjoys the tedium of boarding and disembarking. Bottlenecks in the aisles and the throat of the jet bridge can be eternal, and it takes several minutes just to get from the doorway to your seat, or vice versa.

      If you want to make things slightly easier on your fellow travelers, here’s a simple recommendation: when boarding, please do not place your carry-on bags in the first empty bin that you come to. Use a bin as close to your seat as possible. It drives me crazy when I see a guy shoving his 26-inch Tumi into a bin above row 5, then continuing on to his assigned seat in row 52. I know it’s tempting, but this causes the forward bins to fill up quickly. Those seated in the front must now travel backward to stow their belongings, then return upstream, against the flow of traffic, slowing everybody down. Then, after landing, these same people have to fight their way rearward again while everybody else is trying to exit. Am I wrong to suggest that assigned bins might be a good idea? There are a lot more seats than bins, you can argue, and not everybody carries the same sized carry-ons, but I’m convinced there’s a way to make it work. If nothing else, airlines should make a gate-side announcement requesting that passengers please use compartments at or near their seats.

      The traditional method of filling a plane from back to front has been part of the problem. A lot of airlines now board by “zone” or “group” instead. One element of these techniques is to board window and center seats first, followed by the aisles, so that fewer people have to squeeze around one another. Another option is to board rows out-of-sequence, in staggered sets rather than consecutively. You call every second or third row, allow people to stow their bags, then repeat. According to one study, you can load a plane up to ten times faster this way.

      Not that it makes a whole lot of difference, as many people hate getting on a plane early and will wait as long as possible, ignoring the boarding calls. These last-minute boarders cause at least as many holdups as the bin-hoggers.

      Veteran pilot Patrick Smith says it drives him crazy when he sees "a guy shoving his 26-inch Tumi into a bin above row 5, then continuing on to his assigned seat in row 52".

      Another recommendation: families with kids in strollers should be boarded first, and upon arrival they should be asked to stay in their seats until everybody else has exited. How many total hours are wasted each day waiting for parents to assemble their strollers and gather up the approximately 90 pounds of travel gear that is apparently required by every child younger than five?

      Using multiple doors also speeds things up. We don’t see them much in the United States, but boarding bridges that attach to both the forward and center doors (on those planes that have them) are common in Europe and Asia. A number of gates at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport have unusual bridges with access to the rear doors as well, passing over the plane’s left wing. (Boarding and disembarking almost always takes place on the left side of the plane. The right side is used for cargo and baggage loading, servicing, and catering.)

      Meanwhile, I’m sure you’re wondering about those situations, of which there are far too many, when a plane stops short of the terminal, accompanied by the embarrassed crew announcing that “our gate is currently occupied” or that the marshaling personnel aren’t yet in place. Yes, the arrival station is kept abreast of every flight’s ETA, so why, why, why, is the gate not ready on time? I’m afraid I haven’t got a good answer. There can be more to these situations that meets the eye—a plane’s assigned parking spot is based on arrival and departure times, passenger loads, customs and immigration issues—but I suspect that understaffing has a lot to do with it. Pilots find this as frustrating as the rest of you.