Saturday, September 12, 2015

When Two Equals Nine

If someone says you are number two, that's usually not too bad. At least that's what I thought when my boarding pass came spitting out of the terminal. Under the listing for "Group" was a large "dos". Should work out fine, I thought. Being in the second group means that I should have no problem getting on board early and finding space to stash my rollaboard, have plenty of time to check my email before they close the door, even have time to use the rest room on board if needed. I mean, all that's standing in front of me is Group One. And how big could that be?

But it turns out that the size of group one is almost the least significant factor as to when you get on the plane. That's because, like the search for the Holy Grail, airlines have been playing with the contradictory goals of getting people loaded in the most efficient way, while also rewarding frequent flyers with early boarding. The combinations they've tried would take a supercomputer most of next year to work out, and still leave you standing in the aisle while someone tries to fit a body bag into the overhead bin filled with souvenirs from Wally World.

It starts with any number of basic approaches. United uses Outside-In, while Delta uses Blocks. Airtran has had some luck with Rotating Zones, while most of the others go Rear-to-Front. Southwest basically just throws up its collective hands and does a random approach, assigning slots as you check in for both seats and boarding order, first come, first served. This leads to determined travelers hovering over their keyboards exactly 24 hours before their flight departs, counting down the seconds when they can mash the "check in" button, ensuring them of an emergency aisle seat AND a coveted "A" boarding slot. Truly two mints in one.

But layered into these purely moving people calculations is the need to stroke the egos of frequent flyers. These are usually businesses travelers who have some say in their choice of airline, as opposed to those cruising Expedia and Kayak and Orbitz, looking for the cheapest flight from Kalamazoo to Houston. They want to get on and get their gear stowed ASAP, and not deal with the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in Seat 37B.

And so we go back to my flight. First they called for those needing extra time, be it because of age or medical reasons. Hard to quibble with that. Then they offer boarding to First Class and Military personnel. Again, hard to argue: if you are willing to fight our country, or pay $3,724 for a seat, you deserve priority. Next should be Group One, then me. Right?

Wrong. Now it's Business class. OK, I'm good with that, too. If not $3,724, then $2,345 should get your more than just a glass of juice before takeoff. Then they call their BFF's, Platinum Card Holders. Got it; I used to be one of those, so hard to feel put out. Then their codeshare partners at a similar level, Emerald or Sapphire cards. OK, that makes sense as well, though I do wonder who came up with the precious stone ranking. But I digress.

I should be second to next, right? Not so fast. Now the Gold members. Then the Ruby members. (Those damn stones again!) And finally, Priority and Group One. And what comes after One. Yup, finally: me. Actually, at that point 90% of the plane has already boarded, so the gate agent doesn't even give us the satisfaction of calling our group exclusively: "Groups Two, Three and Four, and all others may board." She could have just as easily said, "All you remaining losers, get on the damn plane."

Thankfully, in spite of my late entry to the race, I knew how to game the system. I chose a seat near the back, and had kept refreshing the seat map on my phone, jumping row to row to find one with an open middle. (That's a story for another time.) So while the front of the plane was reasonably full, the ghetto in the back was not. As such, I had plenty of stowage and stretching room after all. Still, it was a lesson in airline math as confounding as anything todays' third graders face: two seems to be the new nine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford generally like to travel. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.