How to speed up airplane boarding by a factor of five


Proposed plan doesn’t account for the time it takes to enqueue all people in the proper order (odds and evens on opposite side of the plane). Might as well say “board in seat order and make carry-ons illegal” if you’re shifting cost to externalities.

The real problem with flight boarding IMO is the big Zone Two or whatever your airline calls it. Anyone with any frequent flier credit card or moderate privilege level boards in that zone. These people are randomly scattered throughout the plane and tend to have carry on bags (that’s why they have the credit card in the first place, to get early boarding so they can get an overhead spot for their bag), so it takes forever.

Airlines probably aren’t interested in fixing this anyway- just budget a little longer boarding time.


This. These types of preferred boarding would need to be eliminated. People who get on first (in this case referring to “before the masses” rather than the actual first person) don’t necessarily care how long it takes everyone else to board, as long as they get on first. With this method, there is no guarantee you will always board first. And if you want to sit together, there is no way your entire party will board early.

That, and the airline makes money off people who want the privilege of boarding first.


If I can’t get on in the first group, I wait until near the end. My cabin baggage then becomes the flight crew’s problem if there is nowhere to put it. The economic analysis of air-travel is very sophisticated. I am guessing that boarding time is often not “critical path” with other activities like loading baggage, catering and pre-flight checks taking longer. The shitshow that is boarding an aeroplane doesn’t usually add to turn-around time but is (deliberately?) annoying enough to provide additional benefits (avoiding it) to those who pay more.


You can do that before boarding starts. Southwest already has people queue up in a particular order on opposite sides of some signposts.

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Boarding Airlines Takes Forever

It actually doesn’t. I’m sure everything could be more efficient than it is, but hell, I’ve mostly been flying Southwest lately, which is the worst possible practice (basically seating from front to back), and it takes what, ten or fifteen minutes? Where’s that Louis C.K. clip…


They ask people to queue up in a particular order, but do they actually do it?

My observation has been that people ignore the specifications about which row they should be sitting in, and simply line up in order of most to least impatient, and the gate crew let them on the plane no matter where they are sitting, because it would always down slow boarding more to try to enforce their boarding order, than to have people board in a random order.

The really obnoxiously entitled try to get in with the passengers with small children / wheelchairs, etc, and sometimes the gate crew do actually put their foot down there.

Then the plane lifts off at the same time for everyone, and the only difference is that the most impatient people have spent 10 extra minutes sitting in cramped uncomfortable airplane seats, while the slackers got 10 extra minutes in nice comfortable departure lounge seats, or able to move around and stretch, which is always good for a laugh…


Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University

I assume that his proof starts with “Assume a spherical airplane…”


The fact that airlines are unwilling to enforce boarding order doesn’t mean it’s infeasible to do any kind of boarding prioritization. If they actually sent people to the back of the line when they arrived at the scanner before it was their turn, you’d see behavior change quite quickly I suspect.

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They could get people to compare tickets in the departure lounge and line up in the exact configuration of their assigned seats. If anyone arrives at the gate more than two rows out of order, their neighbours get a free beer, and they get charged for it…

For Southwest’s system, I think they do honor it. The current way of making you stand in the right numbered zone before entering makes it obvious if too many people are in one. I’ve never seen anyone near me try to sneak by, but have seen once or twice the gate crew stop people who were in the wrong order.


Is it also frictionless?


Assume a spherical passenger in a vacuum…


The second half of the Wired article succinctly expresses my concerns better than I could:

The problem with his model, he admits, is
that it does not account for human nature. For example, it’s hard to
imagine people who are traveling together who would be willing to split
up, just to stand in line (especially if that group contains small
children). Add that to language barriers, people running late, and the
overall difficulty in getting large groups to follow complicated
directions, and it’s easy to see why Steffen’s idealized boarding model
hasn’t been adopted. “It does require a bit of control over the
passengers that I don’t think airlines really have,” he said.


The proposed 5x speedup requires every passenger be in a specific place in line in order to work, which also means you can’t stand in line next to your travel companions. That’s quite a bit of time making sure everyone is in the right order. It also means that people who opt to wait longer to board (if you have no carry-ons) or who jump the line end up incurring a much higher cost to the rest of the group when they fail to cooperate than they do now.

The real answer here is simple. Each row should have its own boarding door. That makes every row an exit row, with plenty of legroom, and then we can all line up to get on, roller-coaster style.


The system could be fixed to accommodate groups traveling together in adjacent seats. Just give the group the seating order that the first member to board (usually the person with the window seat) would get. Then you’d line people up like Southwest does, except that the seats would be reserved. The privileged people mess things up though, as they usually take aisles, sit down first and block things up. But if they all could be put into first class or economy-plus it would be less of a jam.

Perhaps they could pre-load a mock airplane and then have the people line up based on where they are sitting in the mock airplane… then we could discuss more efficient ways of loading the pre-load mock airplane…


then we could save the time it takes to move around the people who don’t feel comfortable sitting in an exit row…

None of these deal with the problem of the 85 year old lady with the 60lb suitcase that’s a little too big for the overhead bins who spends 15 minutes trying to make it work before finally allowing the stewardess to take it for a gate check.

Really, people getting into their seats is not a problem, it’s the overcrowded overhead bins that are the major cause of slowdowns these days. Checked bag fees are the biggest boarding holdup today. I always get that cold pit in my stomach when I see that family in front of me in line each with a rolling suitcase and a huge backpack (which they absolutely won’t put under the seat in front of them). I know if they’re sitting anywhere near my row there is going to be no space for my bag, especially since the rollers are all a bit too long and will have to go in sideways.