Your airplane finally lands, the seatbelt sign flashes off and you leap to your feet, ready to get out of the cabin and on with your vacation.
The problem is, everyone’s got the same idea.
You all – sort of – deplane row by row, but with everyone jostling and reaching for their luggage via the overhead locker, it’s never entirely clear whose turn it is to get off next.
Now imagine if passengers waited patiently and disembarked one row at a time. Sounds like a pipe dream, right? Except apparently it does sometimes happen – and flight attendant Louise Vadeboncoeur has the video to prove it.
Vadeboncoeur, a flight attendant with Canadian carrier WestJet, recorded timelapse footage of passengers disembarking an internal domestic flight in Canada.
They’re oil sands workers, traveling from Fort McMurray in Alberta to Calgary International Airport – and they’ve got deplaning down to a tee.
“These men and women do this flight on a regular basis. As it blows my mind every time, I decided to film it,” Vadeboncoeur tells CNN Travel.
“Even though they fly often back and forth, it still doesn’t explain how they manage to all know that this would be the perfect way to deplane in a perfect world.”
So is this the “perfect” way to get everyone off an airplane?
The art of disembarking
Vadeboncoeur, who has been an air steward at WestJet for the past 12 years – she loves “almost every minute of it”, she says – explains that air crew don’t get training on how to deplane.
Airlines seem hesitant to get involved. American Airlines told CNN Travel, “we don’t have a perspective to offer on this,” while British Airways declined to comment for this story.
As a result, the crew tends not to interfere unless some passengers have tight connections and need to disembark before others, or if there are children, elderly people or disabled passengers who need assistance.
“It’s left to the passengers to figure out,” explains Vadeboncoeur, adding that doesn’t always lead to smooth sailing.
“It’s usually chaotic and people wanting to get out (or up) as soon as possible,” she says.
But the passengers Vadeboncoeur filmed on the WestJet charter flight are nothing if not orderly, deplaning one at a time, row by row.
They might get up and get their bags when the flight first lands but they always sit back down again, says Vadeboncoeur.
That’s what frequent flier Johnny “Jet” DiScala recommends. “I think people should get up and have their bag ready,” he tells CNN Travel. “Because I think that’s what takes time.
“So often you’re held up because one person is so slow at getting their bag or it’s too big to pull out or it’s stuck.”
DiScala says he always strives to be as swift as possible when he disembarks.
“Everyone’s in a hurry when they land regardless of if they’re going home or to a business meeting or making a connection. They just want to get home or get to their next place. So why hold them up? It just kind of drives me nuts when people just take their sweet time.”
While perfecting a speedy boarding process tends to be what airlines focus on – and, of course, how to deplane in an the event of an emergency, a whole different topic – there have been some academic studies into airplane disembarking.
A team of experts at Northwestern University in the United States published a report entitled “Structured Deplaning Via Simulation and Optimization.”
Andrew Wald, Mark Harmon, Diego Klabjan of the university’s department of industrial engineering and management sciences, did simulated tests to conclude that “structured deplaning may reduce deplaning time by over 40% on a full aircraft.”
They suggested a deplaning group system – similar to group boarding systems. Depending on your seat, you’re given a group number that denotes when you can disembark the airplane.
Rather than row by row, one option is all the aisle seat passengers deplane, then the middle seats and then the windows – although the issue with that premise is you could be separated from those you’re sat with, which could be controversial if you paid more to sat next to them, a service some budget airlines offer.
Additionally, this wouldn’t work for passengers with disabilities or small children – they’d need to be let off first.
DiScala says he thinks that, unless you’re traveling with someone who cannot be left alone, it’s usually fine to just wait for them at the gate, especially if it means you all get there quicker in the end.
In another study, “Symmetrical Design of Strategy Pairs for Enplaning and Deplaning an Airplane,” the authors suggest there are three key methods that could be adopted:
There’s the aforementioned aisle-to-windows situation, the regular front-to-back, row by row option or a “pyramid” strategy, using both doors, in which front aisle and back aisle go first and other passengers follow accordingly.
Peter Vink, the head of the design engineering department at Delft University in the Netherlands, tells CNN Travel the pyramid option is the fastest.
Vink, alongside Suzanne Hiemstra-Van Mastrigt and Richard Ottens, ran a study called “Identifying Bottlenecks and Designing Ideas and Solutions for Improving Aircraft Passengers’ Experience During Boarding and Disembarking.”
He says the team did experiments in a Boeing 737 prototype, alongside field studies on Airbus A319 and A320 aircraft.
“Computer simulation studies show that reverse pyramid disembarking is fastest,” he says. “However it is almost impossible in practice to let passengers do this.”
Hand luggage, he says, causes the biggest issue. If a bag is too heavy or cumbersome – or if it’s been placed in locker further down the airplane and the passenger needs to walk against the flow to collect it – this all takes time.
Sometimes passengers might be too short to reach the overhead bin, or unable to for health reasons.
In his studies, says Vink, retrieving luggage was the main factor delaying disembarking. Slow walkers – often those with children or large luggage – were the second biggest.
This relates to Vadeboncoeur’s video, in which there were no children and the travelers were all frequent fliers.
“The slowest disembarking time is up to 13 minutes and the fastest [is] 6:27 minutes for an airplane minimally 80% occupied,” says Vink, clarifying that an emptier airplane takes less time.
Solutions that also worked were using both doors for disembarking, which can cut disembarking time in half, Vink says.
Traveling with no hand luggage reduces disembarking time by 80%, he adds, while traveling with one item under the seat in front of you can save up to three minutes.
All great ideas in theory – but what all these systems have in common is exactly that, they’re systems.
And a system needs to be reinforced, right? Otherwise it won’t work.
So while there’s a few tips and tricks you can take on board (literally) for speedy disembarking, you’re always going to be at the whim of your fellow travelers.
So until airlines start getting involved, or unless you’re traveling on Vadeboncoeur’s highly efficient WestJet flight, maybe the key is early check in and nabbing that front row seat to ensure you’re always first on – and first off.