Best boarding strategy for airlines: random, study says

A two-year study by American Airlines revealed that the fastest way to board an airplane is not back-to-front, but randomly.

What is the best way to have passengers board an airplane?

Back-to-front? In sections?

The answer: randomly, according to a new two-year study by American Airlines.

Interested in speeding up the boarding process -- after all, time is money -- the airline ran computer simulations of different boarding options, the Wall Street Journal reports.

What it found: randomized boarding works best, even for elite travelers. The strategy saves three to four minutes during the average 20 to 25-minute boarding process, the company says.

The study first employed people to watch thousands of aircraft arrivals and departures to see where the process slowed down. A few factors: first, more people are bringing carry-on baggage thanks to steep checked baggage fees; second, people often put their luggage in overhead bins while waiting to be seated, further slowing the process.

Then it ran the simulations.

The results:

  • Back-to-front boarding, believe it or not, was the slowest strategy.
  • Boarding "outside in" -- that is, passengers with window seats first, then middle, then aisle -- was faster than back-to-front. (United and Delta both currently employ this strategy.)
  • Random boarding performed the best, allowing people and overhead bins to fill up more evenly, encouraging passengers to stow their carry-ons closer to their seats.

What's more, the process was found to reduce the number of bags American had been checking by nearly 20 percent.

The carrier has rolled out the strategy in North America, Europe and Asia, with a catch: if you want to avoid the chance that you board near the end, forcing your carry-on bag to be checked and not stored in the stuffed overhead bins, the opportunity to board early will cost you $10.

(Or, check in early and improve your chances of assignment to an earlier group.)

Mercifully, American also reduced the number of boarding groups it was supporting, from 10 (!) to six: two premium tiers, one early boarding tier and three coach tiers.

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