Great question! According to a New York Times article, the time it takes to board 140 passengers on a domestic flight has doubled in the last forty years, now lasting between 30 and 40 minutes. Airlines have been trying to cut this time back down, but finding the best way to seat passengers is proving more difficult than trying to jam a set of golf clubs into an overhead compartment.
The standard method of boarding across most carriers is called “Rear to Front”—achieved by seating first and business classes in front first, then seating coach from the rear of the plane forward in 30 seat sections, or “zones”.
Delta uses a similar “Zone/Block Style” that adds blocks of elite and frequent fliers to be seated before going through the zones. Even though this style of boarding has been used for decades, it’s far from efficient. Travelers still have to wait patiently for each zone of 30 passengers to navigate around each other. However, it’s the method that requires the least amount of planning and execution.
AirTran uses a similar “Rotating Zone” technique. The only difference from the “Rear to Front” method is that alternating blocks are seated at opposite ends of the plane until the process meets in the middle. In essence, this results in at least two blocks seating themselves at the same time. It’s improved, but you still have groups of 30 passengers fighting for overhead storage space at once.
United also uses zones to board passengers, but in a unique way. The “outside-in” process (or as United refers to it, “WilMA”—Window, Middle, Aisle), passengers are boarded by seat position relative to the aisle. After first class is seated, window seats are boarded, followed by middle and aisle seats. The good news is that it spreads passengers throughout the airplane, allowing each traveler enough space to get everything in place quickly. The bad news? Aisle seat passengers have only crumbs of space for their luggage after the middle and aisle seats have had their way.
Additional methods run the gamut from US Airways’ late “Reverse Pyramid”, to the random check-in-dictated structure of Southwest. More complex methods are also being developed by physicists, like this one here. However, most methods eat up any possible time saved in boarding through planning and structure—defeating the entire purpose of saving time in the first place.
So, until that ideal mix of efficiency is found, we’ll have to continue waiting in line and muttering under our breath.
We’d like to hear what you think! Which method of boarding do you prefer? What ideas do you have to make boarding more efficient?
And don’t forget, if you have any other questions you’d like us to research, let us know!