Unfortunately the title is not a set up for a humorous punch line. Boarding is often the worst part of flying on a commercial airliner. On just about every flight passengers endure being stuck in line in a gerbil tube (jet bridge) and then in the aisle on the plane. In many countries, passengers also have to battle the crowd to even get to the boarding lane. Surely, there must be better ways.

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Boarding an AeroMexico 787-9 at Benito JuΓ‘rez International Airport (MEX) Mexico City.

Several studies have looked at the issue. These studies characterize the current process as a front-to-back system in which business/first class boards first and then everyone else follows in zones from back to front. That is a good approximation but not exactly how it works in practice. A typical study that is a quick read is here.

Experts agree that airlines get one thing right even though it may seem counterintuitive: it is faster to let slower passengers, those who have physical issues or are with small children, board first. That is about the only part of the current system that promotes efficiency.

Studies and simulations have demonstrated that the fastest way to board is achieved through variations of the WILMA method. WILMA stands for window, middle, aisle. Under WILMA scenarios, passengers in business class board first (1), window seats board next (2), followed by those in middle seats (3), and people sitting in aisle seats (4) last.

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WILMA’s advantages were confirmed by no less of an authority than Myth Busters. See the short 3-minute excerpt below.

Random boarding without assigned seats can be slightly faster than WILMA but is very unpopular with customers in the studies.

Airlines Like Things Just The Way They Are

It seems unlikely that airlines will ever adopt a version of WILMA or deviate much from the current system. They profit form passenger distress.

The studies correctly recognize the reality that passengers in business class who usually pay higher fares will always board first.

On the other hand, the studies I’ve read fail to recognize that business class passengers aren’t the only ones who board early under the current system and they ignore the effect of pre-departure service in business class. Elite members in an airline’s frequent flyer program or airline alliance also get priority boarding in recognition of the amount of business they generate. Airlines also sell priority boarding to the general public separately or as part of the benefits of buying preferred seats.

In addition, priority boarding is often used as a perk to promote signing up for an airline-affiliated credit card. Selling miles to banks to reward people for using those credit cards is usually more profitable than flying for most airlines. In short, a lot of passengers, in addition to business class, pay (in one way or another) for the right to board early, and airlines aren’t about to give up that revenue to make boarding faster for the rest.

Airlines have no operational incentive to speed up boarding because loading and unloading passengers usually doesn’t take as long as unloading and loading baggage, cleaning the plane, performing catering functions, fueling etc.. If each plane could operate an extra flight per day by making boarding faster, airlines might have addressed this problem long ago.

How I Would Improve Boarding

If I found a magic lamp and a genie granted me a few wishes, these are some of the things I’d do to make boarding a commercial airliner faster and less of a pain.

1. Increase the size of gates and concourses. My home airport, Charlotte-Douglas International (CLT) is the second largest hub of American Airlines. The gate areas are so tiny that the scrum for boarding not only makes it difficult for those on the flight, it also blocks the concourse and affects people trying to go to and from other flights as well.

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Vantaa Airport Helsinki, Finland
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Β At Seoul/Incheon Airport (ICN) Republic of Korea concourses and gates have separate, dedicated spaces.
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ICN boarding.

2. Assign agents to keep lines orderly. Creating separate boarding lanes for different groups of passengers is a good idea but doesn’t help much if there are no agents to enforce the system.

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Japan Air Lines assigns enough agents to ensure people have access to boarding lanes and are lined up correctly.

3. Improve jet bridges. Jet bridges in the U.S. are claustrophobic torture chambers. They have no view and can be hot is summer and cold in winter. If one must be stuck in a gerbil tube, at least provide heat, ventilation and a view.

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At least being stuck on this jet bridge at Helsinki Vantaa International Airport comes with a view.

4. Use front-to-back and back-to-front boarding where feasible. Boarding using doors at the front and back simultaneously is incredibly fast. I have had great experiences with this type of boarding several times in Asia.

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Cambodia Angkor Air flight at Siem Reap International Airport (REP) boarding at the forward and rear doors.

This method can work with jet bridges too. This photo was taken from the amazing Qantas first class lounge at Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith International Airport. Jet bridges are attached to the first, economy, and business sections (L. to R.) of a Korean Airlines A380.

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The jet bridges (metal hot boxes in effect) could be repositioned to allow front-to-back and back-to-front boarding.

5. Standardize seat and row numbering. There is no standardization in the way seats and rows are designated. Often there are variations in the way seats and rows are numbered for the same aircraft type on the same airline. Boarding would go faster and with fewer issues if passengers didn’t have to devote so much effort to ensuring they are in the right seat.

Here are seating charts provided by SeatGuru for two versions of A321 aircraft flown by American Airlines. Note several differences.

I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for examples. This was the first random attempt to come up with one.

On a China Southern Airlines flight a few years I was assigned row 31 in economy. Thinking it must be towards the back of the plane, I didn’t pay attention to rows until I got to the first exit row. It turned out that Row 31 was the first row of economy right behind Row 3 in business class! Fighting the flow of passengers to get back to my row delayed others getting to their seats and was not appreciated.

6. Improve baggage handling so more people check bags. Even though I can have one or two free checked bags I never check a bag no matter the duration of the trip. There are places to get clothes washed everywhere there are people. I always schlep my overly stuffed roll-aboard suitcase on the plane. It is better than trusting the airlines to get it to the destination at the same time I arrive and it saves wear and tear (and potential theft) that it would be subjected to by baggage handlers.

If more people checked bags, boarding and disembarking would be faster and safer.

Final Thoughts

Making boarding faster and less of a hassle will be difficult because airlines have no incentive to do so. In fact, they figure that the worse the experience, the more people will sign up for credit cards, get elite status, or pay to board early. Similarly, the fact that cramming more people into the same space in economy not only increases revenue by putting more seats on a plane, it also increases the desire to pay for more expensive seats in premium cabins to escape the discomfort of economy.

I question the feasibility of WILMA systems because they count on everyone being present at the gate when boarding starts and actually following instructions. Plus WILMA doesn’t account for people, like families, who want to board together.

What do you think of my ideas for improving boarding? Do you have other thoughts on ways to improve boarding? Thanks for considering this issue.

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