Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

Cattle Call

Fifteen minutes till boarding. Is there enough time for me to run to the bathroom before the gate agent starts the boarding process? I think I can make and still be up front. I exclaim, “Greg, can you watch my stuff while I run to the restroom?” He acknowledges, “Sure.” With that I am off as if his comment was a pistol at the start of the race. Five minutes later I return. The concentration of people around the gate area has now increased tremendously. I think to myself I should have waited to use the restroom on the plane. I need to secure that overhead space for my wheelie bag. I need to be the first person on that plane!

These are the thoughts that run through my head every Monday morning and Thursday evening as I commute for work between different cities across the United States. Airline boarding is one of the most convoluted, aggravating, and inefficient processes. A majority of airlines utilize the boarding procedure known as group boarding. Group boarding divides the plane into four to six groups. Usually, the first group includes people sitting in first class and people with super status. However, the people sitting in first class are called to board first of this first group. The second group consists of people on the verge of super status, and the rest of the groups usually consist of everyone else. These last groups are differentiated by the row of your seat moving from the back of the plan to the front. This process only applies to airlines who assign seats to their passengers. For first come first serve airlines, such as Southwest, it is whole another story altogether.

In theory this couldn’t seem like a better deal. Reward the people who fly a lot (these are typically the people that spend the most money on the airline) with the ability to be the first on the plane. Utilize this method of determining priority until you reach the people that don’t fly as often. These people have to rely on the luck of the where they are sitting. By this point there is no place for these people to store anything in the overhead compartments.

In actual practice, this boarding process actually causes bedlam more often than it succeeds in a quick and efficient boarding. For a good majority of flights, that I fly, a large majority of the passenger demographic is comprised of the frequent business traveler. Since all frequent business traveler’s have the highly sought after super high status, everyone on the plane is slated to board in seating area one. This completely nullifies any order to the boarding process. I like to refer to the spectacle caused by this as the cattle call. There are two distinct types of people that participate in cattle call practice: the door stalker and the merger.

The door stalker is completely obsessed with being one of the first five people on the plane. This person usually is at the gate an hour before the boarding process is scheduled to begin. As people start to arrive at the gate this person is constantly looking between the podium and the gate door to ensure no one has snuck in front of them before the boarding process has begun (frequently its another door stalker). This person studies the gate agent’s every move like a hawk analyzing its prey in the wild. As soon as the gate agent commences the boarding process the door stalker is off as if the announcement of boarding was the like stores opening the day after thanksgiving with incredible markdowns. One thing the door stalker seems to always forget is that people sitting in first class trump them in terms of priority. Therefore, the door stalker is now blocking the passage.

The door stalker’s arch nemesis is the merger. The merger stands back watching and snickering at the door stalkers. The merger will wait till boarding has begun then attempt to slip right through the chaos. A merger will often stand next to what resembles the boarding line attempting to form another path to the jet-way door. A merger is usually operating on the fact that they are the only person with seating area one priority, and they can board whenever, in front of, and around whomever. It can get quite ugly when a merger is caught by the gate agent. Typically phrases such as “I fly 10 million miles a year” or “I am the reason you are in business” are vocalized by mergers. This generally does not help the mergers cause, except in sending them to the back only to attempt to merge again.

What all this adds up to is the following scene. Door stalkers, wheelie’s in hand, not wanting to give up position. At the same time the first class passengers are trying to squeeze by to get to their seats. Throw in the merger who is trying to slip right through only to get busted and have to come back the same way while ranting and raving about how they should be on the plane first, because they flew around the world six-times in two-weeks. This is the utter chaos caused by the cattle call every Monday and Thursday morning. Next time you fly make sure you watch out for the cattle call.

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