4 Things That Make Airline Boarding A Complete Mess

For decades, airlines around the world have spent untold fortunes analyzing passenger behavior and plane design to come up with the best way to squeeze all those people into a jet in a timely fashion, and yet no one has cracked the code and passengers still get stuck in long lines, often because of the same old reasons.

While there are likely a large number of causes for lengthy boarding times, here are five that we think are the biggest culprits:

1. Bullish passengers and pushover gate attendants
Unless you’ve never flown before, you know that passengers are supposed to come up according to their group numbers and that the gate attendants are supposed to turn away travelers whose groups have not yet been called.

But the only time this seems to happen with regularity is when the plane is boarding First and Business passengers. Once it gets to Economy, it often turns into a free-for-all, especially once people notice that some guy with a Group 4 ticket got through with the Group 2 passengers.

By letting these travelers jump the line, the attendants have made the boarding procedure less efficient. If it’s a front-to-back boarding plane, these people will now be blocking the aisle rows ahead of where passengers behind them are trying to go. If it’s a windows-to-aisle boarding plane, this means these line-jumping passengers will need to get out of their middle and aisle seats to make room for those who should have boarded ahead of them.

2. Early Boarding For Premium Passengers
First and Business class passengers almost always board first, and sometimes they’re in the way when the Economy travelers try to board, but usually there are so few of them and they are given such a head-start that they’re not a huge roadblock to boarding.

What does slow things down is when the airline allows passengers to pay for early Economy boarding, or gives early boarding as a reward for being a frequent flier or member of some other program. While we certainly understand the appeal of getting on the plane early, it has the same effect as when passengers jump the line.

3. “Forgot My Book/Phone/Laptop/iPad”
There are some travelers who believe that good packing means squeezing everything you need into the right bag. But there’s an additional element that separates good packing from truly great packing — putting things you’ll need during the trip in an easily accessible part of the bag so that you can get them out quickly while boarding.

Alas, far too many people (and I’m very guilty of this) don’t realize until it’s too late that something they’ll need during the flight is still inside their bag.

So when you realize you left your book/phone/tablet/laptop/snack in the bag that is now safely stowed away, you have the choice of either just waiting until after everyone is settled and then going to retrieve it, or getting up now and blocking the aisle as you rummage for your dog-eared copy of Flowers In the Attic. It has happened on every flight I’ve ever been on, and the person doing is rarely apologetic or even self-aware enough to realize he/she is slowing everyone down.

4. Rolling Suitcases and Baggage Fees
Yes, just about everyone travels with one of these suitcases these days, and that number has probably increased since airlines instituted fees for checked bags. And while most of these rolling suitcases may just fit in the overhead bin, they take up too much space, weigh too much, and are often a hassle for smaller passengers to get in or out of overhead storage, leading to all manner of traffic snarls in the aisles.

Let’s not forget the travelers who have yet to learn, even though they’ve seen a flight attendant do it a thousand times, that these rolling cases are often supposed to be stowed perpendicular to the aisle. Thus, when someone comes up later and is looking for space, they have to waste their time — and that of the people behind them — rearranging incorrectly inserted luggage.

Carry-on bags are supposed to be things you carry on to the plane, not things you roll and then need help lifting into a bin.

The L.A. Times’ Michael Hiltzik has a great column today on why he believes United’s boarding plan is the worst, and includes his feelings on the role of checked bags in boarding delays:

“Here’s another way they’ve undermined their own interests — charging fees for checked baggage has simply encouraged more people to carry on, and to stuff their roll-on bags with more stuff than they can properly hold.”

I contend that the combination of too many people, super-tight seating, luggage, and narrow aisles is a puzzle that can never be solved, at least not without removing one of those factors. But even if someone creates an airplane that can fly 150 people in comfort for an affordable price, the airline industry will just use that extra room to cram in more passengers.

The only thing we can do to speed things up is to travel with minimal luggage. Alas, I know that those of you who agree with that sentiment probably already do carry as little as possible, while those that disagree are unlikely to be swayed.

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  1. econobikerredux says:

    If airlines had people raise all of the arm rests, including the aisle arm rests, they could cut a little time off of the board and exit process…


  2. robinm says:

    Another thing that would make the process faster is if every single passenger didn’t stand up and just hover immediately around the area where you have your ticket scanned. The airline staff call for “First Class” and everyone gets up and stands in your way. I’m usually in Group 2, and have to writhe around 80 people who could just sit down for another 10 minutes.

    • CommonC3nts says:

      That was not a problem on the old system that continental had where they boarded by rows.
      They would board by rows from the back of the plane to the front, not as a mess of a group of people with no order. It was much faster for boarding to go by rows, but it was also less stressful and too easy to understand so it would not encourage people to pay extra for priority boarding.
      They purposely want to make boarding chaotic so you would pay extra to priority board.

      • SingleMaltGeek says:

        Some airlines still board by rows, but it doesn’t help because the gate agents don’t enforce it and most travelers seem to know that. See my comment below.

  3. FooSchnicks says:

    The bit that Mythbusters did on this was actually quite compelling. The current boarding system is clearly broken (and their tests indicated this quite handily), and despite airlines’ claims of spending “millions” in research only to come up without a better way, what it appears to have boiled down to is a resistance to change in procedure.

    It would seem this is because of one (or both) of two reasons: 1) they don’t want to re-train personnel with the new procedure and modify the current methods because it’s “too much work” or 2) they think that passengers will be so befuddled by the new system that boarding times will actually increase and customer satisfaction (as low as it already is) will continue to plummet.

    I’d rather them at least try SOMETHING and have it not work than stick with a method that’s broken and quite antiquated.

    • CommonC3nts says:

      Airlines change their boarding procedures all the time.
      Right now airlines purposely changed to ways to slow it down and make it more chaotic to purposely entice people to pay for priority boarding.
      No one will pay extra for priority boarding if boarding is too easy and too quick.

  4. GoldHillDave says:

    I get one of those priority boardings by having the airline’s credit card. I use it, so I can make sure I get my bags (yes, both my carryon and “personal item”) in the bin, as I’m tall enough that I need the space under the seat in front of me for my feet. But: I move fast. I have a small sub-bag inside the carryon with my reading glasses, snacks, Kindle, GPS (it’s fun to see where we are, and before you ask, United, for one, explicitly allows GPS use above 10K ft.), eyeshade, etc., that I can quickly grab before stowing the carryon. I put my stuff in the overhead in the most space-efficient way. And most importantly, I get out of the aisle so others can move by me. If everyone would just do that last thing it would solve a large part of the problem.

    Of course if the airlines didn’t rip us off for checked bags it would help too, but I’d still need a carryon for expensive stuff like cameras, dive equipment (except dive knife–after having one stolen I disassemble mine and put parts in various checked bags), electronics, binoculars, and so on. I’ll need to do this until such time as we’re allowed to securely lock luggage, or until they root out all the thieves from among the baggage handlers and security inspectors. Neither seems likely to happen anytime soon.

    • CommonC3nts says:

      The only way to make sure your luggage is locked and not opened without you present is to check a gun in it. Now you dont actually need a gun.
      Many people do this with a “starter pistol” which counts as a gun.
      What happens is they check your back in front of you and they secure to ensure no one can open it to steal the firearm or whatever else you have in there.
      It truly is the only way to ensure no one tampered with your bag.

  5. SingleMaltGeek says:

    I normally try not to do this, but…


    I once was in something like row 45, and so I waited for them to call my row….I noticed that they called rows 25-40, and lots of people went up. No further announcements, so I waited…and waited….finally, there was no one else sitting in the boarding area. I went up to the gate and asked them if they were going to call rows 41 and up soon, and they said “Oh! You can board, everyone’s on board all ready!”

  6. CommonC3nts says:

    United is a mess for boarding now.
    The worst boarding used to be southwest, but United decided they would find a way to make it worse so people would be willing to pay for priority boarding.

    Continental used to board by rows from back of the plane to front which worked OK and you would be less likely to be in a situation where your bins were already filled up. It was the fasted you could get for boarding, but did not encourage people to pay extra for priority boarding.
    Now as United they changed to a crappy zone system where they board all windows first, then all middle seats, then all aisle seats regardless if you are in the front of the plane or the back.
    Now what happens is all the window and middle seat people take all the bin space then the aisle people have no room left. I always sit in the window seat anyways, but this seating by zones really slows down boarding worse than the southwest cattle call. They really try to make it as stressful and slow as possible so people will pay for priority boarding.

    FYI, carry on bags have wheels. That is normal. They make all kinds of bags with wheels that easily fit into the dimensions for the overhead bin.
    I purposely bought my rollon bag with just 1/2in to spare on each direction for the bin requirements.
    The issue is they dont enforce those dimensions and people bring oversized bags.
    If they stopped charging for checked bags this problem goes away and boarding will be sped up. Now they dont care about speeding boarding up. They want to charge you more money instead.

  7. MissPurdy says:

    I just recently flew Delta, they board by zones front to back. A young woman boarding behind me purposely put her carry on in a bin towards the front of the plane and sat a half dozen rows behind me. When we landed she jumped up and ran to the front to get her bag and line jumped the process of exiting row by row.

    Flying and spending time in airports suck, there is no getting around it. And then you see people like her and her sense of self entitlement, everyone else be damned. It’s maddening