Aircraft onboarding is often inefficient and chaotic. Anxious passengers crowd the gate queue, sometimes out of order, causing a bottleneck even before they get to the plane. Once on board, they encounter cramped, slow-moving aisles. Overhead bin space is limited, and the process for everyone to find their seats and stow their belongings takes far too long.
Current onboarding methods
To understand why boarding with most airlines seems so sluggish, let’s explore the most common methods and how they work.
As we’ve previously discussed, many airlines will pre-board certain passengers, like active-duty military or families with young children, before onboarding most travelers. Airlines also typically have a priority boarding system based on fare class, frequent flyer status, and other paid perks. The following summary outlines the boarding process for all other passengers.
Block boarding from the rear to the front of the plane is the standard onboarding method. Passengers board the aircraft by group, based on their seat number, beginning at the rear of the plane toward the front until everyone is seated.
Rear-to-front block boarding seems logical at first blush. Ideally, passengers get seated quickly without impeding the progress of those in the preceding rows. However, this is not how it works out in the real world. Instead, the time it takes for everyone to find their seat and place their hand luggage in the overhead compartment causes a backup that delays subsequent boarding groups.
In the random boarding method, passengers do not have assigned seats, but are given a boarding “zone” on a first-come, first-served basis, usually according to the order in which they checked in. Southwest Airlines utilizes this process. Efficiency is achieved as this “free for all” system allows for multiple travelers to be seated simultaneously.
Then there is the WILMA method, which stands for “window-middle-aisle.” United Airlines has used this process to onboard passengers with window seat assignments first, followed by those with middle seats, concluding with aisle seats, beginning at the rear of the aircraft. Like the random method, WILMA is faster than rear-to-front block boarding because multiple passengers get seated at the same time.
The American television show, “Mythbusters,” experimented with several boarding schemes in episode 222, which premiered on August 21, 2014. Using a realistic airplane set with 173 seats and overhead bins, the presenters found that the rear-to-front block boarding method was the slowest, clocking in at 24 minutes and 29 seconds. The WILMA process was much more efficient at 14 minutes and 55 seconds. The random boarding method with no assigned seats was the fastest method tested, at 14 minutes and seven seconds.
While the random and WILMA methods are considerably faster than the typical rear-to-front system, neither are the fastest schemes available. That would be the Steffen method developed by astrophysicist Jason Steffen. Published results in the Journal of Air Transport Management in 2012 showed that his process was nearly twice as fast as the rear-to-front method and faster than WILMA or random boarding.
Priority is given to passengers who need extra time to board, such as those with disabilities and people traveling with young children. Then, beginning in the rear of the plane, individuals with window seat assignments begin boarding in alternating rows on one side of the plane, followed by the opposite side. The same process is then followed for the middle seats, then the aisle seats. Once the first round is complete, then the remaining rows are filled using the same pattern.
Boarding passengers in window seats first is a more efficient boarding strategy. Photo: United Airlines
Airlines do not use the Steffen method for onboarding, likely because it would be too complex to implement smoothly, among other considerations, such as concern about separating families during boarding.
Why don’t more airlines change the way they onboard passengers?
Contributing to the long lines during onboarding is the grouping system utilized by many airlines that allocates boarding priority according to the traveler’s fare class or another status. For example, United Airlines’ boarding process entails a hierarchy that allows for three distinct groups of travelers to board before seating of the economy class even begins.
Additionally, baggage fees compel travelers to bring as much as they can in their hand luggage. It is a time-consuming process for passengers to stow their bags in the overhead compartments, which quickly fill up as more people board the plane.
As long as airlines rely upon paid perks, loyalty programs, and baggage fees as revenue streams, we should not expect a more streamlined process anytime soon.