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Science

The best way to board passengers on a plane—and why we'll likely never see it happen

boarding, airplane, passengers

The best way to board an airplane is one we'll probably never see happen.

Have you ever been boarding an airplane and said to yourself, "There's got to be a more efficient way to do this"?

People love to debate the quickest way to get people and their luggage aboard an aircraft. Every airline has its own method, which largely revolves around boarding people with some kind of status—first-class/premium seats or loyalty program status—first, followed by the nonstatus coach folk in various groupings. (I personally like to spend as little time as possible on the actual airplane, so I've never understood the "perk" of early boarding. I guess you get your pick of overhead bin space, but that alone isn't worth it to me.) Airlines are always tweaking their methods, both to be more efficient and to keep their customers happy.

But none of them do it in the truly most efficient way. And why not? Well, because people are involved.


If humans were robots we could program to do what we want them to do without getting their knickers in a twist over not getting to be first, we could theoretically board airplanes in a way that would minimize bottlenecks and get everyone seated quickly. But alas, we are not.

And what is the most efficient way? I would have assumed it would be back-to-front, but it's not. As a video from CGP Grey explains, boarding methods that intuitively seem like they might work best actually don't. There are several reasons for this, from the unpredictability of who is going to struggle to get their carry-on bag into the overhead bin to the fact that, as the video points out, "The human inability to follow instructions is breathtaking."

The video is really fascinating in addition to being entertaining. (There's poetry involved.) Check it out:

So it turns out the best way to board is every other row, back to front, window seats first, followed by the same pattern with middle and then aisle seats. Seems perfectly logical.

And the only barrier to this method is getting people to line up in a specific order? That doesn't seem like it should be that hard of a task. Southwest Airlines already does that with its boarding groups (everyone gets a number and lines up accordingly), though they don't have assigned seats. Has no airline ever even given it a try? Seems like it might be worth a shot at least.

And if nothing else, at least now we know that we're doing it all wrong. If we're going to be inefficient, we should at least be aware that we're doing it on purpose.

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