What is the best way to deboard an airplane

Have you ever thought that there must be a better way to get off an airplane? Should you (or the airlines) care?

Learn about how different structured de-boarding strategies work based on simulation and optimization studies, supported by field observations.
Cost of one minute of delay
Quick aircraft turns are critical for both airlines’ and airports’ operations. Based on data from trade group “Airlines for America”, every minute of delay cost carriers $74.24 per minute in 2019. In comparison, the same study suggests that each minute of a passenger’s time is worth only about 78 cents, so one would wonder why passengers are in a rush to get off the plane while operators are behaving seemingly indifferent.

Most of the airlines currently allow passengers to exit the airplane in an unstructured fashion which means that they don’t impose any rules on the order of which passengers disembark the plane. As soon as the seatbelt sign turns off, anyone can stand up and start making their way towards the open doors, that is if they even wait for the arrival beep at all.
What is the fastest way to deboard a plane
According to a study published in the Journal of Air Transport Management in 2014, a algorithm developed by authors at Northwestern University suggests that a structured deboarding may actually reduce deplaning time by almost half on a full aircraft.

The simulation models passenger interaction as they move from the back of the plane towards the front and assumes that passengers have their carry-on luggage stowed under the seat in front of them or in the overhead bins close to their seat.

Based on the results of the simulation, it turns out that the fastest way to de-board the plane is to have passengers exit by columns, not by rows. In this method, first, the passengers seated e.g., in the aisle seat “C” will disembark from front to the back, followed by the next aisle column “D” and so on.

Depending on the size and occupancy of the aircraft, saving rates vary between 5 to 50%. The rate of improvement is the smallest when the aircraft is small and half full. As the number of the passengers increase, so does the rate of improvement. When modeled for Airbus 320 and Boeing 757-200 (carrying more than 150 passengers), deplaning time is reduced by almost 50% when the plane is full and about 40% on an aircraft that is 80% full (which is closer to the actual average load factor of 85.4% reported by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics before the pandemic)
Potential savings with faster deplaning
It should be noted that the main cause for time delay in a disembarking process is the delay associated with retrieving the stowed luggage which is dependent on the size, weight and location of the luggage.

According to one aircraft turn-time study, it takes about an average of 30 seconds to disembark per row in a 3-3 configuration. Assuming that an average commercial airplane has 24 rows, we can estimate that on average it takes about 9 minutes to disembark such a plane (considering roughly half of the scheduled flights on smaller airplanes with an average of 16 rows and the remaining larger body planes with 32 rows, where the average configuration would have less than 6 seats per row).
Given that there are about 10 million scheduled passenger flights in the United States in a year, an average 30% reduction (assuming only 75% of the potential savings mentioned in the Northwestern study) in deplaning time would save about 27 million minutes or $2bn annually, just in the United States. To put that into perspective, that’s about 1% of the combined annual revenues of the airline operators in the US.
Does is matter?
Obviously, it is almost impossible to disembark a plane one column at a time. Many people are travelling together who won’t want to be separated during the disembarking process. This also may not work for families or passengers with disabilities. That is the reason why most airlines, while they may have structured boarding strategies, do not intervene with the disembarking process. They pretty much leave it to the passengers to figure out. The thing is, depending on where one sits, an average passenger will only save a couple of minutes even in the most efficient way of structured disembarking.

Even if you exit the plane as quickly as you can, chances are you will be waiting for the rest of the passengers at a transfer bus or train as many airports operate people mover systems given their scale. So, all that time you may have saved by jumping into the aisle early or trying to bypass people sitting in front of you may mean nothing unless the plane is directly connected to the terminal with a jet bridge with no other mover systems between the gate and the main terminal.

Therefore, the best strategy is to relax and keep seated (unless you have valid reason or need to get off as soon as possible) until after the few rows in front of you are cleared, and not occupy the aisle all at the same time to create bottlenecks, as seen in this video taken by a WestJet flight attendant which is a much more pleasant experience for everyone involved.
APRIL 11, 2021
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