a sign in an airport

On many an occasion, I’ve spilled the tea on all things airline boarding, from better to worse and deluxe to no bucks. VIPs often board flights in unique ways and first world conundrums of frequent travelers are still real problems.

In fact, they have ruined true luxury in the commercial airline skies.

Airline boarding may be the single most simple, yet simultaneously highly complex thing to get right in the world of air travel. Recently, my friend Gary Leff shared an opinion I echo like a metal drummer in a grand canyon.

That opinion: boarding first is not luxury, boarding last is. Way last.

a black board with white text and yellow and red numbers

Solving For Travel Excellence

Why do the busy and exceedingly successful obsess over private jets? Vanity of course. I’m mostly kidding.

For those who really “get it”, the benefit of private jets is the lack of wasted time and any uncertainty before or after the flight. It’s possible to have a 1PM flight, arrive at the airfield in a car at 12:59 and get right on board with wheels up a minute later.

Compared that to a commercial journey where a general traveler would need to be there at 11:30AM at the very very latest, the hours add up over time. Airlines advise to arrive even earlier instances. Plus, gates change and all sorts of other unpleasantries.

Travel excellence is minimizing the time spent waiting or wondering — anywhere, ever. The hours you get back to stay at home with the family, entertain clients longer or enjoy a stunning location is what it’s all about. Over time, they really add up.

Why Do We Value Waiting The Longest?

A perk of a first class ticket or top tier airline status is the right to line up before everyone else at a crowded gate and be the first to sit in a sub-optimally heated and pressurized metal tube. When you break it down like that, what are we doing?

We’ve gotten this all wrong. Luxury in commercial air travel is as closely following the value adds of private jet travel as humanely possible in a shared setting.

It’s the top tier airline status or first class ticket holders who must leave the comforts of their privileged airport lounges earlier than anyone else if they want to be among the first on board, or risk being stuck in a never ending queue of people who cannot seem to count, as evidenced by getting the wrong boarding zone constantly.

Instead, the non-fancy ticket holder is able to stretch their legs or finish their airport meal and drinks while the frequent and luxury travelers fight their way through the math struggles of those crowding the gate, all to spend extra time in an airplane seat. Even the best aren’t as comfy as a great sofa at home…

Sure — people could board last even with the privilege of boarding first, but that enters us into the saga which stymies the whole thing.

a row of seats in an airplane

The Saga Of The Overhead Bin

I’ve long written that the greatest conundrum for frequent travelers is the roller bag. With it, you really need to board first to ensure a space above your seat and that your time saving carry on, stays a carry on.

true premium experience would be the ability to board last without the consequence of losing out on overhead bin space and either having to gate-check your bag or (best case) having it stowed in an overhead bin eight or ten rows behind you.

Gary Leff, View From The Wing

I can’t echo Gary’s sentiment on the matter enough. A true premium experience would be what seems thus far to be impossible in commercial aviation: retaining overhead bin space for those with elite status.

If executed, this could singlehandedly open the door to the true luxury of boarding last and enjoying every last minute NOT on a plane. The good news, is that bins on planes are getting larger. What could previously only take one roller bag can now take three or more.

The simplest solution would be a level of blocking based on where people with priority boarding access are sitting. By virtue of the same elite status perks which get the early boarding, most people with that perk would have some economy seat selection benefit and be in the first few rows.

Guarding these spaces at the very minimum seems viable at least in potential, but ripe for disappointment if things go south. A guarantee is what’s needed. The trouble there is that on-time performance is everything to an airline and having to push some bags down below to accommodate a guarantee would assuredly eat into that.

a room with red and white furniture

Inroads To Execution, But Only Up Front

To be clear, some airlines totally get this concept and have worked hard specifically for those with business or first class tickets. Less has been done for people who can board early as a perk of frequent flying, who aren’t up front.

Virgin Atlantic is a good example of one where the airline makes boarding announcements from the Clubhouse lounges that are designed to allow Upper Class passengers to avoid the main boarding fracas.

Singapore Airlines and others have systems in place for similar execution for Suites passengers, particularly traveling at Singapore Changi. Emirates is an amazing example of using their home hub at Dubai to build a completely separate gate experience for first class passengers. All A380 passengers flying first class on Emirates from Dubai board directly into the cabin via a separate entrance.

Yes, Boarding First Is Punishment

As noted, boarding first is more time spent in sub-optimal heat and air conditions in a seat which likely isn’t as comfortable as other places you could be.

As wealth growth at the high end of the spectrum outpaces the rest, airlines are losing more and more top customers to private or semi-private aviation which takes any and all hassle away. Time, or wasted time, is often a strong motivator for the change.

If airlines could find a way to ensure that all carry ons for those with priority boarding can find a suitable home in the cabin, they could flip the farce that is luxury in being the first on board and finally deliver an experience that feels like a private jet.

You get to the gate, everyone else is already sweating on board, you quickly scan in and the plane pushes back not long after. It feels so close yet so far.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. When I’m flatbed on Delta, I need a couple extra minutes to stow the wad of bedding they placed on my seat. So when I fly private, my bed isn’t handed to me in a plastic bag? Wow!

  2. Couldn’t agree more, “Paging {your_name}” over the loudspeaker 📢 is Efficiency at its finest LOL

  3. I could not disagree more. I have eye problems and balance problems due to major surgery. I want to get in, put my bag in the overhead and sit down before everyone else gets in. There’s nothing worse than getting on board and finding out there’s no room for your carry-on. I’ve had to stick my bag in the very back of the plane, and then upon landing wait for everyone to get off. the plane before I can go back to retrieve mine.

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