people sitting in a terminal

You’ve heard the calls a million times. Actually, if you’re one of those who are impervious to boarding gate announcements and always stand in the wrong queue, maybe you haven’t.

Airlines spend countless hours studying the boarding process, and how they can get planes off the ground faster, yet despite their best intentions and loudspeaker announcements, people still board at the wrong time, join the wrong queue or just practice generally terrible airport social etiquette.

But now a greater force has stepped in – a global pandemic. Covid-19 is the worst kind of horrible, but its viral effects may bring some positives to travel in the long run.

For starters, people may finally keep some resemblance of distance at the boarding gate, and may actually listen for when their group is called. Your Mileage May Vary notes new boarding changes from Delta to help stop the spread, and there’s hope, after all…

a black board with white text and yellow and red numbersBut first, a rant…

It’s hard to understand the traveler who leaves the comfortable haven of a lounge, or their seat in a nearby cafe to stand at the front of a line, as if boarding first is really a massive perk. Unless you’re in need of precious overhead bin space, it’s simply not.

Couldn’t it be said that boarding first just entitles you to “person who waited on the plane the longest before take off”? It’s not exactly gold medal stuff, and if you don’t need to quickly claim your share of soon to fill up overhead bins, wouldn’t it be much nicer to breath non recycled air in a less confined environment for longer?!

The savviest travelers typically wait until the very last moment to board, tuck into their seat and let the door close behind them. Last to enjoy the fresher air of the terminal, or jet bridge and the one who wastes the least amount of time before the aircraft moves.

If you’re in first class, there’s still usually time for a glass of champagne anyway. Realistically, it’s not as if planes typically push back the moment the doors close anyway.

a plane flying in the skyDelta’s Boarding Changes…

In an effort to reduce spread, Delta is employing a back to front boarding process. The higher the row number, the sooner you’ll be on board, without the need to pass by as many people. It always seemed to make sense. It’s not new, but in keeping people from brushing past each other, it’s a winner.

Anyone needing to pre-board, typically those in need of medical assistance or with young children are still able to do so. All Delta One, First Class or Diamond Medallion members can still board at any time too. Again – why would you board a second sooner than you need to?

Basically, the better your ticket, the more time you can plan to spend standing anywhere but the boarding gate. As airports improve their amenities, it’s not such a bad proposal. With health as the legitimate reason, airline employees can also exert more authority in making sure people follow the rules and listen up.

They should’ve been anyway, but you know – society and all that. Perhaps this greater cause will help get the message across?

a row of seats in a planeCould back to front eliminate unnecessary crowding?

The chagrin of every frequent traveler is the horde mentality. People see a queue forming, so they jump in it, without listening to announcements or glancing at their boarding pass to see that they are in fact the last to board.

With a fair buffer for obvious exceptions, travelers in the last boarding groups tend to be the least experienced, and first to stand in the wrong place. It happens at every boarding gate, perhaps with the exception of Japan where things stay remarkably orderly, thanks to proactive staff.

Boarding back to front means fewer people clogging the aisles of the plane as others try to pass, which would mean that backlogs all the way back to the gate area shouldn’t be as frequent.

a escalator in a buildingTechnology is the key…

Delta’s approach here is interesting, because they’re also the airline investing the most time and effort in having their app improve the boarding process.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, CEO Ed Bastian toted new mobile updates, which would help each individual passenger board at the correct time, with pop up notifications in the app.

Obviously, the big lift is on-boarding infrequent customers to actually download the mobile app, but a discount or other perks for doing so could easily kick that off with attitude. If this could be combined with easily implemented tech and spacing solutions to the boarding gate, it could be the difference.

In a perfect world, there would be a buffer zone before the active boarding area, where a boarding pass could be scanned, and if it wasn’t the correct time, the doors wouldn’t open.

This would help enforce social distancing by keeping controlled numbers of travelers at the gate area at a time, and the rest in the roomier terminal area.

This sort of thinking could naturally space people out in smaller groups, with more time for each to settle in between. With travel not expected to fully rebound until 2023, now is the time to experiment with what sort of measures could change this pet hate of travelers forever.

Those in first class hate fighting to the front of the queue through seas of people, and those in the back of economy hate waiting in terribly long snaking lines. What if airlines could finally sell the dream of luxury as “not” being the ones who have to board first. I’m all ears.

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 we flew Oman Air in business a couple of years ago, they specifically asked us if we wanted to board first or last. We said last, so we got an extra 20 mins in the lounge and then they collected us at the right moment. Was ideal, never understood why other airlines don’t offer it!

  2. Were you a flyer in the old Southwest cattle style boarding from years ago? It was a line up at the ticket counter, then another line up at the gate counter to get that all so important A group card, then again, another hoard at the boarding gate to be sure you were first on. It was huge hoards of people pushing and shoving cattle style. It was quite literally people pushing and shoving against one another to get on as quickly as they could. But they designed it that way to ensure 20 minute turns of the planes. It worked for them. Most people hated it, but it worked. It’s funny, I remember going to airports that were not served by them and there was none of that “southwest effect” as people tended to stay seated until it was their time to board.

    Here in the US I rarely see any gate agent turn people away when they are in a group that is not being called. Whereas in most other countries it’s rather strictly enforced. I mean heck, in Jamaica, they won’t even let you out of the main departure hall and go to the gate area until your group is called. In Spain I’ve never seen out of order boarding allowed. And in Colombia, they won’t let you into a queue until the right group is called.

    So let me give you a reason to board early. I’m usually an AA flyer and typically fly up front. If I’m in row 1 especially, I’ll want to be one of the first ones on board to get that all important overhead space. In row, the available space directly above is very limited so it’s quite important to get the slots right at row 2. If that is not available, then you’ll be the very last one off the plane as going backwards down the aisle in a hoard of people all armed with luggage to retrieve your own will be quite impossible.

    If I’m further back then I’m not in that much of a rush really. Overhead space is important to me though as I always carry on. I won’t want to be the very last on of course, but any time is generally fine. This all applies to narrow body planes of course. Wide body planes typically have much more over head space so it’s really no issue there at all.

    So now, will things change? In the long run, I doubt it. People have short memories and really focus on the previous 3-4 headlines and that’s about it. People themselves will have forgotten all of this in a few months. Companies may not, but people….I have little hope for the ADD generation we live in. Hopefully, as you suggest some great new technology will come along giving people a shiny object to look at while keeping them further away from each other. Good thought!

  3. Yes. in a perfect world this could work. However. the folks who board first (seated in the back of the plane) will stuff their carry-on luggage in the first available bin space (over First Class Seats). Subsequently when the last people to board get on the plane, there will be no bin space available for their carry-ons. The airlines have forced this behavior on the flying public by charging their obscene checked luggage fees. The only solution I see is for the airlines to require that ALL bags be checked, other than a small bag (think 5 pounds) that will ONLY fit under the seat ahead of you. I don’t see this happening.

  4. Mark is absolutely correct. I was recently traveling back to US in Emirates Out of Dubai . I paid for an extra legroom seat in the second row of economy as J class was sold out. A lady who was 40 rows back of me attempted to fill up the entire overhead non with her luggage. A helpful FA made her come back unload it all so I could use the space. I have had that happen before when flying domestic F with economy passengers and or crew filling up my designated space. Esp true in row 1 or 2.

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