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The Boarding Blues

August 16, 2017

THE JET BRIDGE, that strange, too-often troublesome umbilicus connecting terminal to fuselage. The other day I was stuck on a regional jet at Kennedy airport for twenty minutes because the gate agent couldn’t get the damn thing into the right position. If only I had a dollar for every time this has happened. Part of the problem, I think, is that these devices are so monstrously over-engineered. Take a look at the typical jet bridge. The things are enormous. They must weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds and cost millions of dollars. That wayward bridge at JFK was twice the size of the plane. As the agent fumbled with the thing, it looked like she was trying to steer a battleship. Hydraulic arms flexed and groaned, machinery wailed, lights flashed and bells rang. Finally the tires began to turn — like the wheels of those huge mobile barges that NASA used to position the Apollo moon rockets. All of this so that fifty people could walk the negligible distance from the aircraft to the terminal.

I realize the bridges are multifunction. The air conditioning and power connections used by the plane during its downtime are part of the assembly. But do they need to be so big and heavy, with all of this Rube Goldberg machinery? It’s just a gangway for crying out loud. You see simpler, lightweight jet bridges in Europe and elsewhere around the world — with windows! — but here in the U.S. we rely on these ponderous, lumbering contraptions.

Of course, I’m opposed to jet bridges on principle. I prefer the classic, drive-up airstairs. Some of the international stations I fly to still employ those old-timey stairs, and I always get a thrill from them. There’s something dramatic about stepping onto a plane that way: the ground-level approach along the tarmac followed by the slow ascent. The effect is like the opening credits of a film — a brief, formal introduction to the journey. The jet bridge makes the airplane almost irrelevant; you’re merely in transit from one annoying interior space (terminal) to another (cabin).

But if we’re going to rely on jet bridges, we ought to have not only simpler ones, but more of them. It never ceases to amaze me, traveling in other parts of the world, how much quicker and smoother the boarding process seems to go. In Asia, for instance, I’ve seen them board 500 passengers onto an A380 in well under thirty minutes. How do they do it? Here at home, it takes 45 minutes to get 70 people onto a damn regional jet, and it’s chaos the entire time. One of the reasons for this is that airports outside the U.S. will often board and deplane a widebody jet through multiple doors using multiple boarding bridges — at least two, and sometimes even three. This makes a massive difference in how long it takes to move hundreds of people, and their hundreds of bags, between the terminal and the cabin. Dual-bridge boarding does exist in the United States, but it’s uncommon.

In Amsterdam, KLM boards its 747s and 777s using forward bridges, plus a unique, over-the-wing bridge that connects to the rear fuselage. These overwing bridges are by no means lightweight, relying on a superstructure that looks like something you’d see in a shipyard where they build aircraft carriers, but they do make getting on and off the jet a quicker and more pleasant experience.

My friend Harriet Baskas recently penned this interesting story for USA Today on the history of the jet bridge.

An Emirates A380 takes on passengers in Dubai.     Author’s photo.

Overwing jet bridge at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam.     Author’s photo.

Another reason that boarding is more efficient in other countries, Asia especially, is that carriers there tend to use bigger planes. In Asia, even a 45-minute hop is often aboard a widebody 777 or A330. Widebody planes, with multiple aisles and all-around greater spaciousness, are by their nature easier to get on and off. In the U.S., aircraft size has been steadily shrinking over the past two decades. More people are flying than ever before, it’s true, but we’re doing it on smaller planes: regional jets, A319s, 737s and the like. The reasons for this are a subject for another time, but the narrow aisles and limited bin space on these planes mean longer boarding and deplaning times.

In closing, just an observation…

Look around at any airport, and you’d swear that 90 percent of the world’s jet bridges are emblazoned with logo of HSBC. How did this company come to display its colors on virtually every jetway on earth?

By spending a lot of money, is how. I’m not sure this advertising strategy has been all that effective, however, because although millions of people see these four letters every day, relatively few of them know what they’re looking at. I did a little impromptu research, asking several colleagues if they knew what HSBC was. Not one of them could tell me.

HSBC is a British bank, originally founded in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The letters stand for “Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.” It’s currently the biggest bank in the world measured by assets. The company pays tens of millions of dollars every years to airport authorities the world over — mostly at major international hubs — for the rights to put its name on boarding bridges.

In 2012, HSBC was hit with a $1.9 billion fine for laundering money on behalf of drug cartels and terrorist groups — carrying on a tradition of questionable practices that goes back generations, apparently, to the days of the opium trade and, later, the Vietnam War.

There’s also a tie-in between HSBC and the Swire Group, which owns most of Cathay Pacific Airways, the airline of Hong Kong. The Swire family was among those that founded HSBC in 1865. Notice HSBC’s red-and-white, double-triangle logo. The Swire logo is almost the same. At the back of every Cathay Pacific jet, in small typeface near the plane’s registration, this logo appears next to the words, “The Swire Group.”

Air India 777 at Kennedy Airport.    Author’s photo.

Cathay Swire


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