Five tips for getting on the plane pronto

What's the fastest way to board a plane?

A free-for-all, like Southwest Airlines? Boarding by window, middle seat or aisle, like United Airlines? Or by zone, like AirTran Airways?

If you answered "none of the above," you're probably right.

Fermilab's Jason Steffen just published a research paper in the Journal of Air Transport Management that concluded loading smaller groups of passengers in every other row could accelerate the process by up to 10 times.

And if you said, "who cares?" - well, I'm with you on that, too.

You'd assume airlines would just want to get us on the plane as quickly as possible, but nothing could be further from the truth. Generally speaking, airline boarding procedures are as short on logic as they are long.

For example, United's elite customers are allowed to board first from a red carpet, "while the rest of us poor slobs stand next to them on the black airport carpet," says Lee Paulson, a manager for a nonprofit organization in Washington. "It's pompous, elitist snobbery at its finest." Never mind that it's also inefficient.

I don't mean to pick on United, so in the interest of fairness, let me also pick on Delta Air Lines. Its Breezeway - a dedicated lane at each gate that allows elite passengers priority boarding anytime - is equally flawed, to hear passengers talk about it. "It's a joke," says Marge Purnell, who works for an employment services provider in Moline, Ill. "And the announcements they make during boarding are even more ridiculous. Just my opinion."

You don't have to be an overpaid airline analyst to know that the airline industry would prefer passengers feel good about the boarding process than for it to actually work better.

I mean, come on. Do you really think allowing an elite passenger to board at any time is going to speed up the boarding process? Wait, let me back up a minute. Can anyone tell me why these quadruple-titanium status frequent fliers need to be on the plane first to begin with? Do they really have to sit there in their oversize leather seats and sip mimosas while the rest of us shuffle slowly to the back of the plane?

I'm not hopeful that anything I write will change the way in which these chronically unprofitable companies operate, but maybe I can change the way you do, to help you get on the plane faster. Here are five secrets for boarding a plane quickly.

Pack tight and light: No doubt you've heard that almost every airline now charges extra for a second checked bag. You might be tempted to cram more into your carry-on, but you're better off resisting that temptation. I recently made the mistake of bringing a large bag on board and ended up having to gate-check it under less than desirable circumstances. Fact is, the lighter your load, the faster you'll board. And the faster the passengers standing in line behind you will be able to board, too.

Be first in line: Even if you're assigned a seat in the last zone to board, you should make every effort to be the first member of your group. Why? Because early boarders are rewarded with more generous overhead compartment space, access to pillows and blankets and can stake out armrest space (oh, please don't get me started on the armrest wars). Latecomers, on the other hand, are disadvantaged in many ways. There may not be enough room for their carry-on bags. Pillows and blankets are usually gone as well. The savviest air travelers stand in the boarding area at least one zone before they're called. As that zone winds down, they move in closer, anticipating their number will be next. And they're at the gate before it's their turn.

Don't hold up the flight: "Nothing's worse than cruising down that seemingly empty jetway, only to be brought up short by a logjam of 50 people and have to stand around, waiting for people to finish stuffing their oversized carry-on in the overhead compartment," says Kathryn Morrical, who works for a software company in Silver Spring, Md. How true. You may get to your seat with time to spare, but there are no extra points for winning that race. It's only when everyone else is seated that the plane can be cleared for takeoff. How do you avoid the jam? Stow your luggage quickly and get out of the aisle immediately so that others can pass you.

Mind your manners: For example, don't put your luggage in the bin above someone else's seat. That's an old trick used by in-the-know passengers on back-to-front boarding airlines. (If you store your bag in the front of the plane, you're guaranteed a spot for your luggage.) In my experience, most of the altercations between passengers and crew members involve luggage disputes during boarding ( Debra O'Bryan, a medical claims auditor from Chicago, suggests a little courtesy might cause fewer delays. O'Bryan often travels with a cane and is "knocked into, shoved and bypassed rudely" by elite fliers when she tries to preboard. "They are so gimme-gimme rude," she adds. If they backed off a little, the boarding process might become more orderly - if not faster.

Better yet, bring nothing (or close to it): Why travel light when you can travel luggage-free? Impossible? No. Today's laptop computers fit in manila envelopes. Smart travelers ship their luggage directly to their destination. And how quickly we forget the liquid scare from a few summers ago, when carry-ons were banned. "It was absolutely proven that carry-on luggage is the single biggest inhibitor of efficient boarding," remembers Robert Wing, a software consultant from Penfield, N.Y. "The planes that I was on during that time period, both large and small, boarded in literally half the normal time." I've pondered the elimination of carry-on luggage ( in the past, but Wing doesn't think an extended ban on carry-ons has a prayer. And I agree with him. Still, you can downsize your carry-ons so that you don't slow down the process.

Boarding the plane faster is not difficult. Just downsize your luggage, don't be the last person in line, be considerate of other passengers and you'll overcome the bumbling ways in which airlines insist on boarding their flights.

And make no mistake, ultimately it's up to the airlines to find a boarding system that works instead of making excuses for the schedules they can't keep or making a select few passengers feel special.

Brian Cohen, a senior information technology specialist based in Costa Mesa, Calif., says airlines need to reform their boarding procedures by strictly controlling which group boards the plane, practicing better crowd control, enforcing carry-on limits and, darn it, at least pretending they care. He told me he's tired of apathetic gate agents that allow chaos in the boarding area, and understands they think it's acceptable behavior because they're "underpaid and mistreated."

"But as long as they continue to cash their paychecks," he adds, "I will never accept that as an excuse for not doing their jobs."

• Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site at

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