Getting on a flight seems to be so inefficient. I can understand allowing first class on first and their platinum class/silverstar/etc members. They are loyal members and allowing the few individuals who meet this criteria on first seems fine since it is only a small group of individuals. But then there is a total breakdown in the system.

First, they do it by group. But whatever group you may be doesn't really have any bearing on where you sit. In addition, everyone clumps up near the counter. Then before everyone on the flight has stowed their luggage, they call the next group, which leads to people being stuck in the jet bridge. If there was an emergency in the jet bridge that didn't allow people to travel back to the terminal, it would seem so much worse compared to having most people in the terminal or airplane already.

My question is, why do airports and airline companies do this? Have there been studies that show this method is superior to doing it by row? My assumption would be filling the plane from the back to front would be the best method. This way there is no delay for passengers to be seated quickly. Everyone in the back is putting their bags away which doesn't hinder others from getting to their seat, since people getting on would always be farther forward then those who have already boarded. And it would prevent people from clumping around the terminal door.

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    There have been studies and there are more efficient ways (not necessarily row-by-row, this sounds too complicated to enforce in practice). But there are also other considerations, inertia and it's very difficult not to have people clumping up near a counter everywhere there is a bottleneck.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 19:47
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    In my experience the group numbers are very closely dependent on where you sit, the idea being to get the people into the plane roughly from back to front, as @pnuts notes. The problem comes with the fact that there are only a few groups, so the groups are large, so you still get people being held up by those stowing their luggage, and also that while they prevent people who are in the front from boarding early, they don't prevent people who are in the back from boarding late. Someone with a group 2 pass can board after group 5 is called.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 19:53
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    One of the expectations of StackExchange is that you have attempted some initial research on your own. There are numerous articles and studies about aircraft boarding order, and airlines are constantly tweaking the way they organize their groups. See e.g. Bloomberg, Wired, CNT.
    – choster
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 20:03
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    In my experience, especially on routes catering to business travelers during peak business travel times (say, Friday afternoon US transcon flights), first class + platinum + gold + silver frequent fliers (and sometimes credit card holders get lumped into group 2 or so) can be 75+% of the passengers. Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 20:36
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    Do note that passenger boarding is not necessarily the limiting step in turning the plane around. For example, if checked luggage is loading at the same time as passenger boarding, then there is no benefit in reducing passenger boarding time any further than luggage loading time. The important thing is to minimise the probability that passenger boarding takes excessively long rather than to minimise a typical boarding time that's already been slotted into the choreography of turning the plane around. If they're sticking to a method it may well be because it's "good enough". Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 9:27

5 Answers 5


The airlines study this continuously and it's turned out be a lot less 'inefficient' than it seems.

For example, American Airlines studied this and found random order is fastest. See here: Best boarding strategy for airlines: random, study says

So, if random is best timewise, a particular airline's procedure is based on customer benefits and expectations. Premium flyers will always get priority boarding so they can get the best overhead bin space. That's it.

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    Mythbusters also studied this, and they came to the same conclusion - that random was fastest BUT also learned that passengers hated it. It only saved a minute over the next fastest method which passengers loved: flightclub.jalopnik.com/…
    – Wossname
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 22:55
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    @DavidLively - Planes are not running their engines while parked and boarding, so gas consumption is not an issue, except maybe at some remote airport without gateside power or air conditioning where they might keep the APU fired up.
    – user13044
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 2:21
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    What is "random" exactly? (a) Letting everyone on together without dividing them in groups, or (b) dividing them in groups, but with each person assigned randomly to one of the groups? The article you link does not seem any clearer on this point. Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 8:00
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    @Tom Even then, the APU consumes almost nothing in 1 minute...
    – yo'
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 8:58
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    Also, I don't believe that WilMA is favoured as it separates groups (it actually separates even couples). Imagine a 5yo boarding alone, or my aunt that has never flown lol. This just doesn't make sense as is.
    – yo'
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 9:01

It actually makes more sense to assign groups semi-randomly, so that you get an (ideally) even distribution of group members throughout the plane. (So that, if you have 50 people all in the same group, none of them is standing next to each other.)

That would mean you don't have 12 people on the same 2 rows all clogged together fighting over seatbelts and overhead storage, but everyone gets a little space to work with until the next group comes in, at which time hopefully the previous group is already (almost) seated.

This may be one reason you sit down, maybe with a seatmate that's in the same group, but the person sitting between you may come along quite awhile later.

Of course, if you're in the last group, you're probably out of luck regarding overhead storage, but what else is new?

This is a pretty straightforward problem to simulate, and solutions are enhanced by studying actual passenger boarding experiences. The basic statistical / heuristic solutions are perturbed by people traveling together, frequent flyers that arrive late, people that have to get something out of their luggage or go to the bathroom, etc. In a pool of 100-200 people these can be significant factors.

The airline has a vested financial interest in getting everyone on board and seated as quickly as possible, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in a way that doesn't piss off the passengers.

  • I don't fly very regularly and usually only low cost, but I've never seen the overhead storage full! WIth everyone allowed only one piece of carry-on luggage it always seems to work out fine: Board, throw your luggage in the bin, sit down and get out of the way! Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 11:51
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    @AlexanderKosubek Maybe I'm using the wrong airlines. I rarely see unused overhead space. (I fly 6-10 times per year, not a lot by some standards.)
    – 3Dave
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 12:52
  • I think it's becoming more common for the storage to be full as more airlines move to the pay-only-for-what-you-need model, and start to charge for checked luggage.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 11:16

It's to create an artificially scarce commodity (earlier boarding rights) which can be sold.

I'd suspect random free seating to be fastest with business travellers (as on the old NY-Boston shuttle) who will just get on and take a seat. A bunch of one-trip-a-year tourists will probably slow the whole process up re-arranging bags and trying to get seated passengers to move so they can be with their companions.

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    The whole "early boarding privilege" seems like a really weird concept to me. In most cases my experience is that it's actually better to get on board last. Why? Because if you're first you have an extra twenty minutes or more of sitting in an uncomfortable seat with very limited facilities; you have to put up with the rest of the passengers knocking into you as they try to find their seats; you'll probably have someone asking you to move so they can get past you to their seat on the same row. The only way it's helpful to be early is if there's not enough space in the hand luggage hoppers.
    – Simba
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 15:20
  • @Simba It's also helpful to board earlier if you plan to sit in a window seat, precisely so that you don't have to have other people move for you to get to your seat.
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 19:30
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    @Simba - also it can be preferential to board early because you ensure that your carry on bag is near you during the flight. This not only improves your experience during the flight if you want to get your kindle/book, etc. but also if the only free overhead locker space is behind you it can severely impede your exit as you are fighting against people exiting to retrieve your carry on bag
    – Matt Wilko
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 8:57

United and Delta are definitely using a more ordered method of boarding aircraft. They have (in most places that I travelled YMMV) physically separate queues for different groups of boarding passengers and will turn a passenger away if they attempt to board at the wrong time.

For example with United (the last airline I flew with) the groups are:

  1. First class
  2. Premium club etc
  3. First coach (from experience window seat)
  4. Second round of coach
  5. Third round of coach (from experience aisle seat)

The also highlight the currently boarding group on displays. Thus it is easy to see what group is boarding and there is no congestion at the gate.

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    6. People who clap their hands when the plane lands. 7. People who change their baby's diapers on their tray table. Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 22:00
  • How do they handle the 3 rounds of coach when dealing with groups containing children etc? Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 9:11
  • Had a window seat at united and was in group 5
    – masterX244
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 14:40
  • @masterX244 I was recently rebooked on a flight and got bumped from window to aisle and from group 3 to 5, I complained about that to the gate and the united agent said it was the difference between window and aisle. Perhaps that only applies to premium economy?
    – Peter M
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 15:47
  • ticket that i was on was a normal economy one on a boeing 747 in case that matters
    – masterX244
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 15:51

I think you're making a broad generalisation based on the practices of a few airlines.

There are actually many different boarding procedures, which depend on the airlines policies (including whether seats are assigned or not), aircraft type (size, number of floors, classes), airport equipment (number and position of bridges/stairs), use of bridges, stairs and buses, and more.

  • Group boarding is for instance a practice of Southwest, where groups (other than the priority group) are (AFAIK) based on check-in order (so that the earlier you check-in, the earlier you board -- this is to encourage you to check-in early I suppose).

  • Many airlines have no order at all on smaller planes (that's the case of most airlines in Europe, both LCC and incumbents on most single-aisle planes). Some (mostly LCCs such as Easyjet or Ryanair, but incumbents operating smaller regional-type jets also do it) will favour using stairs over bridges so they can use both the forward and aft doors (there will then be a split of passengers based on row numbers at the). Of course, this requires assigned seats.

  • On larger planes the back-to-front policy is usually the norm. This may be combined with the use of several bridges (often just premium classes v. coach, but you other combinations are possible).

As others have pointed out, there have been many studies on the topic, but the most efficient methods (IIRC, they involved doing even rows back to front then odd rows back to front, and/or "outer" (windows) to "inner" (aisle) seats), but are way to complex to implement in real life. Even then, the most efficient method may still vary based on aircraft size, fill ratio, passenger typology (single business traveller which knows exactly how things work v. families with children and lots of bags who don't even know how seats are numbered...).

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