Saturday, January 24, 2004

Boarding system works



By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

zone
Tom Holt (right) from Covedale comments on the new Delta Airlines zone boarding system.
(Photos by Michael E. Keating/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
zone
HEBRON - Flight 535 to Fort Lauderdale was just about sold out and late - very late. But with a new boarding procedure implemented this week by Delta Air Lines, it took the gate and cabin crew only 18 minutes to seat all 140 passengers.

While the MD-88's aisle did get a bit crowded, the lines never backed up onto the frigid jetway, which usually would have been the case.

A few days into it, it appears that Delta has won over customers and workers alike with its new "zone boarding" procedure. It scraps the old back-to-front loading for all its flights, including those out of its hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The system is not used for Delta regional flights on airlines such as Comair or on the Delta Shuttle along the East Coast.

"I'm definitely a believer," said Delta customer service agent Ron Padin. "And I will admit I was skeptical. But after three days, I love it."

Earlier this week, Delta joined United Airlines and American Airlines in changing from the traditional "by row" boarding calls. Passengers still have an assigned seat, but that seat is now called by automated announcements as part of a numbered "zone" that is clearly identified on the boarding pass.

The idea is to eliminate congestion in boarding a plane and make the process move quicker so the airline can get planes in and out more efficiently, possibly reducing costs. Delta lost $773 million in 2003 and is expected to lose as much as $350 million in this quarter.

Experts hail the change, with Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition saying it is one of the first cost-cutting moves that helps passengers.

But according to Matt Daimler, publisher of the Web site www.seatguru.com, other carriers' efforts have been different, with mixed results.

"People still seem to congregate around the gate, blocking people from getting to the front at their zone time," said Daimler, who said that other systems are based on window or aisle seating. "Everyone always worries about getting their bags onboard, as well, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out."

Fewer backups

Under Delta's new system, which has been tested on both the mainline and on Delta's low-cost unit, Song, the first zone called for boarding is still first or business class, along with a new addition - the first row bulkhead seats. That should allow those passengers room to store their carry-ons, and elite frequent flyers in coach are called next.

Then zones in coach go from the back few rows to a middle section to a front section and back to a rear section. The idea is to not back up the person waiting for someone in front of him, instead giving each section a few minutes to get seated before an adjacent section is called.

Delta officials say it is another attempt by the Atlanta-based airline to eliminate lines at the airport. It joins the recent redesign of its lobbies and use of automated kiosks as well as new programs introduced two months ago to help travelers stranded or delayed by bad weather.

"It's actually very logical, even if it is counterintuitive," said Carol Zupancic, Delta's Cincinnati field director for airport customer service. "Under the old system, when people would take a long time, it would compound the problem back through the plane. It also allows us to get the plane in and out faster, which increases our efficiency."

Flight attendant Carolyn Pastorella from Miami said the new system helps her as well; she has helped test it for several months on flights out of Florida.

"Instead of everyone bunched up, it clears the cabin so we can get by and help passengers more," she said, adding that it creates a more equitable distribution of prized overhead bin space. Another gate agent also pointed out that things went smoothly for a more business-oriented flight to New York, which can feature more carry-ons than a Florida flight.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, praised the apparent elimination of the line on the jetway, saying "it can be very discouraging when you finally get to the plane and there's another line.

"Will it make a difference in the buying decision? I don't know about that, but it certainly will help once again with eliminating the negative experience."

"I thought it went a little slower, but that's probably because everyone was so new to it," said Tom Holt of Covedale, who was on his way to a Florida vacation. "When I look at it, it kind of makes sense."

"It gets us on fairly easy," said Gail Maguire, who was sitting near the back of the plane. "I hope all the airlines go to this."

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com



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