Friday, September 08, 2006

Maybe now the first shall not be last

Maybe now the first shall not be last
By Ameet Sachdev
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 8, 2006

It will still be bumpy and you'll still be sitting next to the lavatories, but things are looking up for those in the back of the plane.

For decades, passengers seated in the rear of an airplane have endured long waits onboard as the first to get on and the last to get off. But United Airlines is experimenting with a dual ramp that will allow passengers to board and exit the plane from the front and rear doors at the same time.

To do that, United has started testing a new Y-shaped jet bridge, called the DoubleDocker, at its Denver hub, that links the gate to both doors in an effort to limit the time its planes sit on the ground.

Now a passenger in the back can exit the plane at the same time as someone in first class--a small victory for coach-paying customers who become more stepchild-like each time airlines cut free meals and other services in the face of intense competition.

While United officials hail the move as "all about the customer," it's also very much about efficiency. By speeding up the boarding and unloading process, if even by a few minutes, United can jam additional flights into the day--without using more aircraft.

"We are refining our processes so planes can be in the air flying, being productive versus sitting at the gate being grounded," said Jim Kyte, general manager of United's Denver operations.

United has been testing the jet bridge at one gate since Aug. 15 on flights operated by Ted, its discount carrier. It found it can unload a full plane of 156 passengers in less than five minutes, about twice as fast as using a traditional jet bridge, Kyte said.

Using two doors instead of one seems like a simple concept, and, indeed, international airports often de-plane passengers through both doors. But at most of those airports, ramp workers drive massive staircases up to the plane and passengers have to brave the elements upon exiting.

What's different with the new jet bridge is that United passengers will remain indoors the whole time. The jet bridge also is fully automated, using sensors to find the aircraft doors and drive the front and rear legs to their docking positions.

In a release issued Thursday, United touted itself the "first and only airline in the world" to use such a high-tech bridge system.

Some airline-industry observers mocked United for making a big deal out of a technology that it is only using at one gate, at one airport.

"The airline industry is the only industry that thinks using two doors is a breakthrough," said Joe Brancatelli, who runs a Web site for business travelers. "The bigger issue is whether United will use the bridge at other airports."

The Elk Grove Township-based airline said it plans to expand the use of the jet bridge to other airports but offered few specifics other than to say it is in discussions with other facilities. In Denver, it will deploy five such bridges by Thanksgiving.

Complicating a possible rollout is that airports have different arrangements on the ownership and maintenance of jet bridges. Some cash-strapped airports may object to paying tens of millions of dollars to buy a DoubleDocker.

In Denver, United purchased the jet bridges, made by Dewbridge Airport Systems, based in Ottawa, Ontario. The airline declined to disclose its total investment.

Denver is the first U.S. airport to test the bridge, which was developed specifically for use with single-aisle jets, such as the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737, said Neil Hutton, vice president of Dewbridge. The company sold an earlier version of the jet bridge to some airports in Canada.

Airlines that used the bridges in Canada shaved an average of 10 minutes in the time it takes to "turn" a plane--that is, unload passengers at the gate, reload, prepare the plane and leave the gate, Hutton said.

By cutting turnaround times between flights, airlines can expand their schedules using the same crew, pilots and baggage handlers. The only cost is fuel.

"The airline industry is at a point in time where they are looking for any savings they can get," Hutton said.



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