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Why Can't We Figure Out the Perfect Airplane Boarding Process?

According to tests, the fastest boarding is to let business class customers on first, then let the rest of the plane board randomly.

| BY Kent McDill

On Episode 197 of the Discovery Channel TV show Mythbusters, show hosts Adam and Jamie determined that boarding an airplane from the back seats to the front seats was the slowest method for getting the process completed.

So why does almost every airline board its passengers that way? Probably because it just sounds like it makes sense.

It made sense to Jason Steffen, a researcher at Northwestern University who turned his attentions to the phenomenon after his own travel frustrations. Looking at it from a theoretical standpoint, Steffen determined the fastest way to load a plane would be by having window seat holders go first, followed by middle and aisle sitters, and loading every other row. But that would only work if the precise order was followed, without giving seating benefits to favored customers, or rude customers who decide not to follow the system.

RELATED: Cell Phone Usage on Planes Won't Fly.

Today, almost all airlines use the back-to-front system, but almost all airlines allow that system to be subverted by giving seating privileges to certain flyers. United still uses the system known as WILMA, which is window seat first. Southwest uses random seating, which has been shown to be faster than any other method.

Shown by Mythbusters, in fact, testing six different methods, no assigned seats proved to be faster than any other method, taking just over 14 minutes to load a plan with 173 passengers.

Remarkably, the test passengers were asked to rate their satisfaction with the process, and “no assigned seats;’’ got the worst satisfaction rating.

Back-to-front was the slowest process by far, taking seven minutes longer (24 ½ minutes total) than the next slowest process, which was business class boarding first followed by random seating.

In terms of passenger satisfaction, the top-rated method was known as the reverse pyramid, which no airlines currently uses. It calls for business passengers to be boarded first, followed by a geometrical set of zones starting at the rear window seats. The WILMA methods were faster, as was the random seating.

There are other factors that play into the decision of airlines regarding their boarding procedure. For instance, as long as boarding is an intolerable exercise, it is easier to sell early boarding privileges, which is what Southwest Airlines is doing to the tune of $40 to be among the first 15 passengers go board.

Airlines also use early boarding as a perk for frequent fliers, and that perk is only worthwhile if boarding remains a bad experience.

Airlines do not seem to mind the effort it takes to load bags onto the airplane because the checked baggage charges most airlines now use caused passengers to bring more baggage on board. The increased carry-on baggage creates a further desire to get on the plane first to have room for a carry-on bag.

American Airlines has, in fact, given a slightly higher boarding priority to passengers who do not have carry-ons that require space in the overhead bins.


About the Author

Kent McDill

Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.

In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.

McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.

McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy  Buffett and all things Disney.