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  • Writer's pictureAir Travel Andrew

Using Two Unusual Boarding & Deplaning Methods

For the vast majority of commercial flights today, passengers board and deplane using one of three methods. They either walk through a jet bridge and onto the plane, walk across the tarmac and onto a set of detachable air stairs, or they walk across the tarmac to board a smaller regional jet using stairs that are attached to the door. During my travels over the past year, I had two experiences that were outside of these standard ways of boarding and deplaning.

Ryanair’s Built-In Retractable Stairs

Many regional jets have built in staircases attached to their doors but larger planes generally rely on jet bridges or air stairs. Ryanair’s Boeing 737 aircraft are an exception. On my trip with Ryanair between Gatwick Airport in London to Dublin, I experienced their built-in boarding stairs for the first time. Boeing offers built-in boarding staircases that mechanically deploy and retract under the boarding door, but few customers have ordered the option. Ryanair has taken full advantage of this feature though.

A Ryanair aircraft parked at an airport gate with a jetway. However, the jetway is not connected and Ryanair's built-in staircase is in use.
Ryanair Boeing 737-800 Built-in Stairs

As a low-cost carrier, Ryanair is out to lower its costs and one way to do so is to avoid paying fees at airports. With built-in staircases on their planes, Ryanair can avoid fees that airports and ground handling companies charge for using movable airstairs or jetways. A very typical Ryanair boarding configuration is to board passengers through the front door using the built-in stairs and through the back door using movable airstairs at the same time. Using both doors helps the airline speed up the boarding and deplaning processes. I’ve known about Ryanair’s built-in stairs for a while now but have never used them, so needless to say I was quite excited when I saw them in use on my flights.

Passenger Transfer Vehicles in Montreal

At Montréal–Trudeau International Airport, I experienced something quite rare: deplaning through the rear door only. Deplaning through the rear door on its own isn’t rare. Some airlines like Ryanair do it all the time to speed things up, and some planes like the ATR 42 and ATR 72 don’t have a front door. But having a flight deplane through the rear door only when parked at a gate with a jet bridge that could connect to the front door isn’t very common.

Not only did we deplane through the rear door, but we deplaned via passenger transfer vehicle (PTV). Also known as mobile lounges, PTVs are bus-like vehicles that can connect directly to aircraft to be used for boarding and disembarking. They are only used at a few airports these days, most notably in Montreal and at Washington Dulles International Airport (where they are mostly used to transport passengers between terminals). In the past though, they’ve been used at airports such as New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and Mexico City International Airport. The PTV connected to the aircraft at door height, then it disconnects and lowers the passenger compartment closer to the ground before it started driving around the tarmac.

A Passenger Transfer Vehicle at Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport
Passenger Transfer Vehicle at Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport

Why did we have to do this? We were arriving on an international flight and I think they didn’t have any international gates available. The international gates looked pretty full and I also saw the airport using PTVs to deplane other international flights at remote stands away from the terminal. The other potential reason was that the plane could have been operating a domestic flight afterwards (or both of these things could have been true).

So our plane parked at a domestic gate with a jet bridge but the jet bridge would have brought passengers into the domestic area where we could have exited the terminal without clearing customs and immigration. The airport therefore connected a PTV to the back of the plane, we walked right onto it, and it drove us to “gate” 53B. I put the word gate in quotation marks because it was a door suspended in the air that the PTV connects to. We then walked off the PTV and into the terminal, following the corridors to the customs hall

A crowded Passenger Transfer Vehicle with people sitting and standing
Inside of the Passenger Transfer Vehicle at Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport

I’m sure that those flying in the premium cabin at the front of the plane weren’t particularly happy with this method of disembarkation. Getting a seat at the front of the plane will almost always ensure that you are one of the first people off the plane, but this experience shows that there are some rare exceptions to this rule.

Empty Interior of a Passenger Transfer Vehicle
Passenger Transfer Vehicle at Washington Dulles International Airport (July 2018)

Traveler Takeaways

  • In an effort to save fees and expedite boarding and deplaning, Ryanair has retractable stairs on their Boeing 737 aircraft. When flying with Ryanair, you are most likely going to board using stairs (either the built-in ones or detachable air stairs).

  • At Montréal–Trudeau International Airport, you may board or deplane via a passenger transfer vehicle or mobile lounge. These bus-like vehicles are also used at Washington Dulles International Airport.

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