Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline is familiar with the routine.

Wait for boarding announcements at the gate; get in one of several lines to board; inch slowly onto the plane, jam your bag into the overhead bin (if there’s room); sit down in your cramped seat, exhale.

But the science behind that process can vary greatly. Airlines are still tinkering with different methods to deal with the increasingly slow pace of boarding — which can be frustrating for passengers and cost-prohibitive for airlines. 

Boarding time has doubled since the 1970s.

Boarding a plane has become harder on everyone as checking bags has become more expensive, overhead storage less available and the literal and figurative room for error has shrunk for both passengers and airlines. 

A Boeing study cited by the New York Times states that boarding time has doubled since the 1970s, and successfully navigating the boarding routine now rivals the security line process as a stress- and anxiety-producer for many travelers. 

Speed and efficiency are what passengers and airlines both want, but those ideals are complicated by the economics of flying today. 

Airlines seek the fastest possible “turnaround times” and aspire to minimize the time expensive planes are not flying. At the same time, though, they’ve leaned heavily into money-generating strategies including baggage charges, seating perks and other fees that can limit physical space and complicate boarding. 

Therefore, what may be fastest may not be the most profitable, and what is most efficient may ruffle the feathers of passengers who want the ability to buy their way to the front of the line.

So what’s the best method?

Finding the right balance between all of these factors is driving airlines to tinker with new approaches to solving this boarding dilemma. 

All airlines give boarding priority to first-class, business-class, elite or select passengers (determined by a myriad of mileage, credit card, or airline-specific perks) and travelers with small children or disabilities. After that, there is a range of strategies. 

Another problem: Letting passengers board to the back while the front is empty can tip the plane.

Boarding a plane from rear to front seems like a common-sense solution. However, it tests out as an inefficient method that creates aisle traffic and inspires mad dashes for overhead compartment space. 

Another problem: Packing the back of the plane with passengers while the front is empty can tip the plane with its nose in the air.

A random system with no assigned seating, which Southwest uses, is faster then rear-to-front but closely tied to Southwest’s value-over-perks brand and not feasible for most airlines that depend on the additional fees generated by perk and mileage benefits. 

There is the “Wilma” method, which seats window passengers first, followed by middle row folks, then people in the aisle. This tactic (hypothetically, at least) cuts down on congestion in the aisle and fighting over storage space. 

An analytical option, the Steffen Method, designed by astrophysicist Jason Steffen, has passengers strategically board the plane in a highly structured order that is surely very efficient and just as surely too complicated for a non-astrophysicist to describe.

No airline has yet adopted this technique, but as airlines continue to search for quality options it just might happen in the near future. 

United Airlines, for example, rolled out a new boarding strategy in the fall of 2018 after experimenting with various methods in the previous year.  The result is what they’re calling Better Boarding, which reduces the number of boarding lines, among other decisions aimed at making the process faster and more comfortable.

Look for more airlines to adjust their seating plans in response to passenger feedback, constantly changing economic considerations and continued analysis of best practices.

And maybe, just maybe, the next time you fly your boarding experience will feel less stressful.  

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