The Plane Truth: Boarding by Rows Is the Worst Possible Way, Says Physicist

By Joseph Castro | August 29, 2011 3:17 pm

Let’s face it: boarding an airplane with luggage is just downright frustrating. Not only do you have to puzzle out how you are going to wrestle your carry-on bag into the aircraft’s tiny overhead compartment, but you have to do it while trying not to get swept away by the tugging current of other passengers.

“OK, everybody count off!”
Courtesy of Steffen, arXiv

But surely not all boarding procedures are created equal—simply boarding the plane back to front would be the easiest and most efficient method, right? Wrong. In fact, boarding by sequential rows is the worst possible approach (pdf), according to a new study by physicist Jason Steffen of the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics.

Steffen tested the efficiency of several different boarding procedures by sending 72 luggage-toting passengers into a movie-set Boeing 757. Among the boarding techniques tested was the zone/block style, where passengers fill the plane back to front, one large group at a time; WilMA, or Window, Middle, then Aisle (how the “l” got where it did is a mystery); and Steffen’s own procedure (imaginatively called “the Steffen method”), which incorporates both the other two techniques (see chart).

Steffen timed how long it took the passengers to fill the plane under the different boarding procedures and found that the block style takes the longest, falling well behind the uber-sophisticated “random boarding” method—letting everyone on at the same time. The Steffen method was the quickest because it maximized the number of people who could use the aisle concurrently without crashing into each other.

So, Steffen argues, if airline companies started implementing his method, they could save money by shortening the amount of time the planes have spend in the terminal. But can you imagine how long it would take to get people to line up in the correct order in the first place?

Reference: J. Steffen and J. Hotchkiss. Experimental test of airplane boarding methods. arXiv:1108.5211v1

  • Sandra

    Chicken herding. I worked for greyhound it was worse because they have “no cut off limit” every man, woman and child is on their own. The order of seating was disabled only first, unaccompanied children then what ever got left overs to the magic number. Which if the coach holds 47-55 is a random number. Complete pandemonium then calm?

  • Crimfan

    I hate boarding, it’s no fun at all because when you’re boarding so is everyone else around you. However I think they can get it to work, potentially by using a boarding by number system. You get assigned a boarding number and there’s a lighted board with the numbers in order.

  • IW

    The problem is with the design of the planes.

    If each seating section was not actually in the plane but in the waiting area, people could get seated while they’re waiting, then the sections themselves, with people already seated, would be loaded and secured. Problem solved.

    Each seating group would have its own parachute, too, which would save lives in the event of a catastrophe.

    But of course that’s too radical for Earthlings. You’d rather piss off passengers and then kill them.

  • hudasx

    The weakness is obvious: people who are together might not be able to board at the same time.

  • ursusmaritimus

    Who gives a crap if people board together? They are stuck together until the end if time so what’s a few seconds apart? People need to stop brining three giant bags in to the cabin and also wasting overhead space with stuff than fits under the seats as well.

  • Matt

    At the very least they should implement random seating. Not only is it faster than row-by-row, in terms of actually seating, its also easier to implement.

  • jaschac

    So the boarding is now *provably* inefficient? Great. Like I needed another reason to loathe the air-travel experience.

  • Kathryn

    So Southwest Airlines got it right after all! (random boarding)

  • Scarletcat

    Stop dragging luggage into the passenger compartment and only allowing what can fit under a seat (even if placed into an overhead) and you immediately address the on and off boarding as well as a number of safety and security issues.

  • Baramos

    They should just do it randomly with a time limit, if you’re not seated in five minutes you can’t fly (and you are also put on a Terrorist Watch List, just in case).

  • bwe

    Charge for carry-on bags instead of checked luggage.

  • Marina Stern

    Irrelevant. I stopped flying years ago, because of the intrusive security procedures. If I can’t drive there, or take a boat, I’m not going.

  • Charles

    That study might have been a good preliminary step but it’s methods are seriously flawed so it is far from figuring out The Plane Truth or whether Boarding by Rows Is the Worst or not. 

    I admit that boarding a plane is almost as awful as riding in one still I’ve suffered through a lot of flights and sometimes was amazed at how quickly a group of mostly strangers and get in a single file line with lugage and get on a plane.  I think their even faster getting off.  Don’t get me wrong, if it can be done even faster then I’m all for it.   

    I got curious about the differences between methods so I read the article. Really I just  skimmed it, but it didn’t skim well.  They only had one measure for each boarding method and with no real measure of variability it’s not possible to conclude one boarding method is faster than the other.  I bet there’s a lot of variability in real world boarding times.  Also, they had the same set of passengers board the plane 5 times, once for each method and one method after the other meaning there wasn’t any control for passenger practice (or fatigue).  With that confound and the no measure of reliability it’s not possible to conclude any method is better than by rows.

  • mz

    IW hits it on the head. We need to have large cylindrical waiting areas in the terminal that can then be slid into the plane, simultaneously as the just-landed plane’s deplaning passenger sections are removed and taken directly to baggage claim. The best part of it is that if you want, you could sleep from the moment you checked into the waiting room, and be awakened once the cylinder is at the baggage claim of your destination.

  • mz

    If we want people to stop bringing on more carry-ons, then the airlines need to stop charging a per-bag fee for checked-in luggage– or charge the same for carry-ons also.

  • Anna Hall

    Well, after 5months on sick leave after a work accident I would love to be able to get on a plane and fly to virtually any country. I can’t afford a holiday, but if I could then twenty minutes discomfort spent in boarding area to actual takeoff is a small price to pay if it means the difference between a holiday and staying at home

  • EricS

    Seems like there should be a door in the back in addition to the one in the front. They could board rows 1-17 from the front and 18-35 (or whatever) from the back.

    I remember when we used to board widebody jets from both sides — do they still do that?

  • Moomin Papa

    It’s bad enough trying to get passengers to board in blocks, let alone knows trying to get them to board individually in a specific sequence. They wander about, get lost, can’t hear the PA or have such a wildly inflated sense of self entitlement that they, and only they, should board first.

  • assface

    Delta uses zones… you board based on your zone.. and they are in groups of alternating rows.

  • Ed

    My secret to effortless boarding? Whenever boarding begins, I stand up and go to the bathroom. I take my time. I saunter back, and wait longer if there is still a line. When the last people are at the gate, I wander over there.

    I still have to spend a little time waiting to get to my seat, but not much. And my bladder’s empty. :)

    Of course, my strategy wouldn’t work if everyone did it. But you don’t, so it does.

  • Mark

    Southwest has a system for people to line up in boarding order that seems to work well. Couple that with assigned seats and you could have a well organized process.

  • karl

    My easy solution: travel light and board last. No muss, no fuss.

    True, not everyone can do this but many who can don’t. Try it sometime.

  • zukeybadtouch

    Smart money would label and lay out the seats in the terminal in the same fashion as those in the plane, so everyone is already in their assigned place BEFORE the plane even pulls to the gate. When boarding starts, everyone is already qued up in the order they need to be (assuming people can be bothered to sit in the proper seats while waiting for the plane)

  • tweaks8


    I do the same thing and it works wonders. Except for SWA they have that stupid boarding number thing. If you get the last number your stuck between the 2 old fat sweaty men that take up 3/4 of the middle seat.

  • pervlibertarian

    Just print a “line order” number on the tickets along with the seat/row information.

    @hudasx – groups should be broken up for the safety and security of other passengers. If a member of your family is holding things up you will have an opportunity to rectify it when you meet them in your row or the aisle.

    @Barams/@Moomin – No concessions should be made for the inattentive/unconcerned. They’ll either get with the program or learn a lesson.

    @Charles – The issues you described are what makes it a viable blind study. Practice is something to be eliminated as a factor when evaluating efficiency. Experience will only serve to make the most efficient method moreso, not give a less efficient method a chance to close the gap.

  • FlyingPaper

    I chalk this up to the airlines having tried this a thousand times before and spent thousands on getting this to work and then just rolling their eyes and throwing up their hands at the costly and pointless use of organization when trying to organize the herd.

    Now, if there was a plane full of very experienced travelers, I’m pretty sure they could organize themselves into a super-efficient boarding party, but the fact is that on every plane you have:

    1. I spend my life in the air
    2. I fly occasionally, but know what to do when I get on/off the plane
    3. I fly occasionally, but am so witless I just get on the plane when told without consideration of the bigger picture
    4. I fly a lot, but am so self-centered and have such an enormous sense of entitelement that even though my seat is alllll the way at the back and it’s all I could afford I still think I’m a rockstar and should be treated that way so I will do whatever I want to cause chaos as long as I get it the way I want it got
    5. I fly once every 40 years and I have no idea what is going
    6. What do you mean I can’t bring these 2 bags on the plane?
    7. Speak I no english

    In all, what’s the point? None.

  • Nylund

    I often do the same as Ed. I go to the restroom while everyone else boards and come back to the gate just as it’s cleared out. It works great except for if you have a carry-on bag. Then, you risk not finding a spot for it. Of course, if that happens,they’ll just gate check it. It’s like checking your bag only without the fee!

    But that gets at the real problem. Its not people finding their seats that makes it slow. Its the fact that so many of them are hauling a giant bag, desperately looking for a place to cram it, swinging it wildly over people’s heads, and spending too many minutes hoping the laws of physics suddenly change so that a 24 inch bag can fit in a 20 inch space.

    The fact that airlines actually have a policy that amounts to, “we’ll charge you extra if you DON’T do this,” is the epitome of stupid. They actually want to pay extra to have to spend even more time waiting for your bag at baggage claim and let you fly cheaper if you add to the chaos of boarding. It seems entirely backwards.

  • Wingman

    I would agree with the majority of those irritated by the dysfunction found at nearly every airport boarding gate. The one important thing that no one even thinks to mention is; why would passengers even consider boarding the plane in a quicker fashion when the overall gain is minimal. There are many reasons that I have accepted the procedure as it is.
    Here are some of those reasons:

    -Luggage still needs to be unloaded from previous flight and loaded with present flight.
    -Fuel and Food need to be replenished for every flight.
    -Not everyone is an able bodied athlete, some people have physical disabilities.
    -Most people generally don’t care about the amount of time it takes.
    -There is no actual consequence for preventing a timely passenger load.

    Consider this; Even the military (when transporting troops) may set an “expected time to depart” but without the foresight to know there will ALWAYS be complications and delays, they would not be able to ensure a proper “wheels up”.

    Simple fact is, everyone has their own perception of how the world should operate. Take that and mix it with ‘what I expect to see’ and ‘what I am capable of making happen’ and you will almost always encounter difficulty when multiple age groups and agendas are put together.

    If you really want to have a pleasant flying experience from start to finish, learn how to not be a colossal whiny self righteous person that projects self hatred on those around you for selfish reasons.

    I am truly Amazed at how many adults are complaining about something more often than not are contributing to!

  • michael

    the problem: boarding is slowed down because people have to stand in the aisle to access the overhead compartment. the solution: reconfigure the interior so that the storage compartments are only accessible from your row/seat.

  • Shane M

    Hurry up and wait. I don’t fly alot but is boarding / deboarding really a bottleneck?

    Additionally, why are seats aligned shoulder to shoulder. Certain staggers of seating would seem to provide a more comfortable arrangement with increased shoulder space for all

  • Nathan

    I like random boarding. I read or work on my computer in the terminal until everyone else is on, then stroll on at the last minute, walk straight to my seat, and rarely have anyone in the way :)

    So, the idea of lining up on order of seats? No thanks.

  • aero_schmidt

    People completely ignore any boarding system unless its enforced, which is why most of them suck. Most people will try to board regardless of when they are supposed to including during early-boarding for handicap. Smaller airports aren’t as bad due to comparatively low volume but boarding in Chicago or Atlanta is always a nightmare. Too many obese self-important business types trying to edge on before they are supposed to and with like 4 carry-ons that fill up the overheard bins.

  • Davo

    Fat and smelly people should be banned too. It won’t make it much quicker – just a more pleasant flight.

  • Gene Callahan

    “Smart money would label and lay out the seats in the terminal in the same fashion as those in the plane”

    Which would be great. If there was only one sort of plane in the world.

  • Bryan

    Southwest is not random, they have assigned boarding numbers. It’s the seating that is random which works except on full flights and then some family with kids is late to the gate and makes people switch seats.

    All in all, I prefer Southwest’s method. Check in early if you want the front of the plane. The problem is the early loaders put their luggage at the front of the plane then go to the middle or back which fills the overhead compartments over empty seats.

  • Z H

    Good academic exercise but it won’t work in real life. People would waste time complaining that the airline was following an inefficient loading method instead of the common “back-to-front”. The guy in the back-row who otherwise would get first loading privileage would write to the airline, promising never to fly, because they didn’t let him board first. God forbid if people closer to the back are ever blocked by someone closer to the front for 5 seconds.

    Seriously, when dealing with people, psychology is more important.

  • LR

    Um. I get that the Tevatron is shutting down, but is this seriously what Fermilab is spending its resources on now?

  • Mr. Winston

    I travel a lot for work and have built status to where I board first and sit closer to the front of the plane. Sure, the Delta method may be slower, but to be guaranteed an overhead compartment is worth something. Also, those sitting in the back of the plane seem to gravitate to putting their rollerbags in the first available space…many times on the front of the plane. This slows things down, and in my case would cause there to be no room overhead for my carryons unless I walked to the back of the plane. Also, zones 1 and 2 on Delta tend to be seasoned travelers, knowing how to pack their bags and knowing how to fit their luggage in the overhead.

  • Sherry

    I fly as rarely as possible but notice a lot of helpful fellow travelers during the boarding and unboarding (wd?) process, i.e. taller folks helping shorter folks to get luggage in and out of the overhead compartments.

    As to boarding order, wouldn’t a mix of SWA’s boarding by zones, along with assigned seats printed on the boarding pass be worth a try? Perhaps those seat assignments could take into account the luggage we carry and whether we are traveling alone or with someone. Several use cases: (a) traveling alone with bag, (b) traveling alone without bag, (c) traveling with another with bag(s), (d) traveling with another without bag(s), (e) traveling with child(ren) with bag(s), (f) traveling with child(ren) with bag(s). Well, I couldn’t write the program, but it’s not rocket science.

  • Dan

    The worst part of boarding a plane comes after you sit down. Everyone around you takes out their phone and calls someone and says “I’m on the plane in Chicago, and we are about to take off. Gotta go.” Then as soon as the wheels are back on the ground, they pull out the phone and it’s “We have just landed in Atlanta. I’ll call you later. Bye.” Thank God we can’t use our phones in the air, there would be updates every quarter hour. Hey people, you have a phone in your pocket. If someone needs to know where you are, THEY CAN CALL YOU. Compared to this annoyance, being herded aboard with cattle prods would be a pleasure.

  • smlyc

    A contributing problem, regardless of method, is passenger noncompliance. EVERY flight has the person who is more important than everyone else and disregards the rules.

    If it were up to me, I’d implement two things:
    (1) no seat changes after T minus x hours – no exceptions; and
    (2) bakery-style take-a-number when you arrive at airport – you scan your boarding pass, & it gets stamped (or e-stamped) with a “pull-tag” number. A few minutes before boarding everyone is told to line up in numerical order by pull-tag. Yes, like primary school. (It’s really not that hard or time-consuming.) Attempted line-jumpers have their tickets canceled and they are bodily ejected from the airport.

  • Brian

    Airlines don’t choose their boarding method for efficiency, they do it for crowd control.

  • Sig

    I fly a lot and could never understand why people are so crazy to join the big crush to get to a reserved seat. In my experience the plane always leaves at the same time for everyone. Never had any competition for boarding last.

    It only makes sense to charge on early for those airlines that are too lax to enforce their own carry-on rules.

  • Flintstones Fan

    Why the “l” in the acronym for Window, Middle, Aisle? And where does the “i” come from?

    With the “i” and the “l” it spells “Wilma.” Cute, pronounceable, and worthy of a place in the acronym hall of fame.

    Another good way to board easily is to find a person traveling alone with multiple children. Offer to help get him/her onto the plane and enjoy the pre-board.

    My son pulled this one. He was flying home from college where he had broken his ankle about 12 hours after fraternity rush started. Hmmmm. He was given a removable boot towards the end of the healing so he could bathe, etc. At Christmas time when everything is crazy, he strapped on the boot, went to the gate agent with a tale of woe, and got on the plane before the pilots did.

  • Stephen Karlson

    There’s going to be no resolution until air carriers figure out how to sell seats without assigning seats, and until airplanes are better suited to loading or unloading through more than one door. Amtrak is able to beat the air carriers downtown-to-downtown in the Pacific Northwest and in the Northeast Corridor in part because trains can load and unload through multiple doors.

  • Peter

    Uh, Southwest Airlines has been boarding that way for quite some time and boarding goes quickly and smoothly. No Steffen method. How about the Southwest method?

  • Katie

    The problem is that no man is going to board first while his wife (or substitute any combination of genders and commitment levels) stays behind and waits for her turn to be called in. Or, if that does happen, the man is going to be carrying both rolling bags with him and/or using his second bag to save space in the bin for his wife’s bag. Or the man will wait behind with his wife and therefore clog up the works anyway.

    I never put anything in the overhead bins, if I can help it. I carry a soft bag that can fit beneath the seat, and then when the flight’s in the air, I pull it back to the front of my own seat and stretch my legs over it.

    The whole philosophy of “carry on only” brought about by baggage fees has been one of the worst decisions in terms of passenger comfort.

    I also tend to be leisurely about boarding, but recently I was sitting there finishing up some work pre-flight, with still ten minutes before the boarding had to be complete, and the gate agents announced that they were closing the doors. I guess they could see the two remaining passengers waiting and wanted to herd us onto the plane so they could close up and get a coffee break. So we got up and went through the door, to find ourselves at the back of the long line of people in the jetway. Thanks, Delta!

  • AHodge

    dont forget to add
    send in all the disabled and women w children and huge gear first
    seat the first class first in front of the plane
    send in all the other random priority folks
    add a nice mix of obese chatty folks with baggage problems with no clue of everyone backed up behind them and folks trying to rearrange seats last minute

    but agree w peter southwest does decent job

  • AHodge

    i forgot
    charge for checked bags so everyone tries to bring on the max or more

  • Stephen

    Last time i flew, i sat next to an obnoxious slob. He ordered a drink, complained about not getting it fast enough, spilled it on himself, ranted about it, and so on. Very amusing. The steward eventually upgraded him to 1st class, and offered me a free drink. By being evil, he got a free upgrade. By being oblivious, i got a free drink and two seats to myself.

    He was also obvivious to the obvious humor of the situation. Apparently, there are people who live in a similar, but non-overlapping world to the one i live in.

  • Ronald S. Boyd

    On a trip to England a few years ago we flew out of Gatwick airport (LGW). The system they employed worked quite well. We were called for boarding When the aircraft wasn’t even there yet. All of our documents and boarding passes were checked and were were seated in a long room. When the aircraft was ready for boarding…we boarded. No doc check nothing just get on the plane and get in your seat. Fastest boarding procedure I have ever seen. The final boarding order was random (as random as we were in the long room) and worked quite well.

  • Flyer

    I’ve found the best approach to airplane travel is to practice deafness. It really helps you tune out the incessant discourteous/useless conversation around you and the whiners eventually give up begging you to do them a favor to satisfy their own selfishness. As an added bonus it makes the TSA people do more work. OK, so it slows things down but the reality is everyone is in a hurry which is what makes the whole process slow down – if everyone would take it easy and relax (the plane isn’t going to leave any earlier anyway and it’s probably going to be late anyway) the process would probably go faster. Haste makes waste.

    What they should really do is pass out Xanax at the terminal entrances.

  • Jane

    I am a flight attendant for a major airline and I hate boarding with a passion. It is the most stressful part of the whole flight experience for everyone concerned, passengers and crew.

    However I have the perfect panacea from my own perspective; I always choose to work in the galley where I am extremely busy during the boarding process. Problem solved! Ha!

  • Balicon

    Flying is the most polluting human activity there is. Just stop flying. Frequent fliers are environmental criminals. Just stop whining and get on the bus.

  • BJB

    My only travel request would be to make it a Federal crime to put your carry-on luggage in an overhead space more than an row away from your seat. People come on, pop their bag over row 5 and head back to row 22. The guy in row 5 has to wind up with his bag in the back of the plane and needs to let the entire plane get off before he can swim upstream to get his bag. The original idiot grabs his bag on the way out. Should be a death penalty for it.

  • Ed

    Awh sweet memories of what flying was like. I am proud I decided a few years ago there was nowhere I would ever want to go so badly as to submit to the discomfort and indignity of air travel.

  • Alastair

    It doesn’t matter if people get assigned seats inside the plane or in the waiting area – there are too many morons who would still stuff it up. I don’t understand how people get it wrong but they do! Maybe just ban stupid and inefficient people from flying!

  • Robert E. Coli

    Simply pay a little extra and board first with the other ASSOLs…

  • Elena

    Boarding last would be a good idea, if overhead space didn’t fill up so fast, now that airlines charge extra fees for checking bags. Often if you wait, there’s no room in the overhead bins and the flight attendants have to check your bags, and you end up having to spend time to claim it. 


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