The newest, bestest airplane boarding sequence. Or is it?

Everyone has a theory on what the best method is for boarding an airplane. Back to front, outside in and random are just a few of the commonly used methods by airlines. And there is no shortage of opinions – both from customers and the carriers – on which is best. Add to the list of folks with an opinion Dr. Jason Steffen. His new method is now being touted as a means to improve boarding times by up to 40%.

The Steffen Method suggests boarding from the outside in (windows first) but also by sequencing passengers back to front and skipping rows along the way. Essentially it creates a system where customers don’t get in the way of each other while in the aisle. That approach eliminates the battles in the aisle as customers put their bags away and take their seats. It looks like this:


Rather than just running computer simulations these researchers actually put the design to test in an almost real-world environment. Sortof. They rented out a movie studio’s 757 mock-up that includes 12 rows of seats. The hired 72 locals to board the plane in 5 different ways and timed the results. In the end the numbers look like this:


So, yes, the Steffen method is fastest, assuming you can get folks to line up in order. But that simply doesn’t happen.

Only Southwest has a boarding where passengers have a specific sequence number rather than just being in a group. The Southwest policy can be best approximated as the "Random" method in the study, though the Random method still had assigned seating so it still doesn’t really map. The authors of the study do acknowledge this, suggesting that without assigned seats the passengers would likely self-select seats that reduce the interference instances and speeding things up.

Block boarding – the historical model of loading passengers in sets of rows back to front – is incredibly inefficient in the manner most airlines implement it. As noted in the study:

Clearly, boarding in blocks of four rows does not help the enplaning process. Blocks of 12 rows, on the other hand, clearly does—the difference between back to front and random boarding (almost 90 seconds) shows this…. [O]nly other considerations would serve to justify its use.

Ultimately none of the results in the studies surprise me. Alaska Airlines recently stated that they found their current boarding process notably less efficient than alternatives but that they also found they could not change to the more efficient means due to the need to provide priority boarding to certain customers. While the study had three parent-child pairs which always boarded first, most airlines who pre-board any group of customers have a much higher percentage of the total number in that pre-boarding group.

And it is those passengers – namely elites – who ultimately ruin the statistics for everyone.

By boarding the elite customers who are scattered throughout the cabin in an inefficient manner the process effectively becomes the equivalent of two or three random boarding groups and then another boarding by whichever policy the particular airline subscribes to. By mixing the boarding styles even greater inefficiencies are introduced into the process.

I would be more interested in the results if the aircraft size being simulated was closer to that of an actual commercial plane. I’d also be more interested if they bothered to include the concept of elite boarding in the process since it seems highly unlikely that will ever go away. In the meantime, however, this certainly makes for a bit of interesting reading.

Check out the full report here (PDF).

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Are there any statistics available that show how often passing boarding is the long line in the overall turn-around of an aircraft (vs, say, loading luggage)

    I also keep pointing this out, but if carry-on size limits and numbers were strictly enforced and there was enough overhead space (none of those tiny UA767 bins), people would probably be in their seat much quicker.

    Would be interesting to compare boarding times of, say, LH, and UA.

  2. Damn, I thought I finally had a good scoop for you. Or at least for the first time since 2007.

  3. Regarding cabin baggage, that certainly will have effects in the real world but the test did include carry-on bags in all scenarios and there were no bags checked though the bins were full in each test. Ultimately I think that variable is controlled for well enough in these samples, though I agree that no (or at least fewer) bags would obviously increase the speed of each approach.

    The First Class cabin doesn’t really help the boarding process at all based on the stats in the report. The only slight advantage it brings is fewer “seat interference” cases as the number of seats in each row is lower. Otherwise it doesn’t help at all.

    And, Matt, I thought we agreed the 2007 tip incident was never to be discussed again. 😉

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