Airplane aisles can get as congested as an L.A. freeway when passengers are boarding.
Planes have become more crowded and carry-ons larger. One person stopping to shove a bag into the overhead compartment can create a long line and delay boarding. (Read more: More Airlines Increasing Carry-on Bag Space)
Now, a company in Denver led by a retired Australian Navy test pilot has come up with an idea to speed up boarding. Molon Labe Designs' Side-Slip Seat is an aisle seat that slides on top of the middle seat to create more room in the aisle. Once boarding is over, the aisle seat returns to its normal position.
Founder Hank Scott says the seat would expand the aisle from 19 inches to as many as 43 inches.
The wider aisle could cut boarding time in half, he says. That, in turn, would save fuel and money because aircraft would spend less time on the ground.
"The slowest part of turning the aircraft around is the people," Scott says.
Airlines have tried different strategies to load people onto their planes faster. Many have abandoned the traditional back-to-front boarding and experimented with letting window passengers get on first or letting people on randomly.
Push for rapid boarding
Rapid boarding is particularly important to low-cost carriers because their business model requires them to fly as many planes as they can in a day. Dublin-based Ryanair is working with a Chinese aviation company on a prototype for a jet with extra-wide doors that would allow people into and out of the plane more quickly.
Boarding has become so aggravating that airlines have started to charge for early boarding. US Airways , for instance, recently added PreferredAccess starting from $10 per person per direction.
"US Airways is always looking for ways to streamline the boarding and deplaning process while making it as convenient for our customers as possible," spokesman Todd Lehmacher says.
Scott admits that there is a tradeoff in convenience, however. The first model of the sliding seat does not recline, though a second model will. And the seat doesn't have much padding, though an airline can choose to add more.
"The comfort is completely up to the airline," he says. "They tell us how much foam they want."
But for once, the middle seat passenger gets a perk: 3 extra inches of width.
Nonetheless, Scott concedes that the seats are designed for flights of fewer than 3½ hours.
"I wouldn't think it's the best seat to go from New York to L.A. without the thicker padding," he says.
Robert Mann, president of airline consulting firm R.W. Mann and Co., says he doesn't think that will go over well with passengers.
"Passengers complain about skimpy padding within one hour, let alone three hours," he says.
Scott says he has shown the design to airplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus and that four airlines, which he declined to name, have said they want to see the prototype. He expects to have the prototype completed by the end of this year.