Guide to Airline Boarding Procedures

You know the scene. Eager passengers line up outside the gate before those on the incoming aircraft have even deplaned. They rush down the jet way, roll aboard suitcases trailing behind them. They squeeze their luggage into the overhead bin before a flight attendant can say "gate check."

Because nearly all domestic carriers have instituted checked baggage fees, passengers are carrying on more bags, making the overhead bin a hot commodity. Passengers are finding themselves fighting tooth and nail in order to be the first one to board the plane. But with a little planning, you can secure a seat that will put you in your desired boarding group.

Many airlines, including Continental, American, and JetBlue, board back to front, so try reserving a seat toward the back. If you have a tight connection, and therefore being one of the first to get off the plane is your priority, aim for an aisle seat close to the front of the plane. (But don't expect to have much space for your bag in the overhead bins.)

Boarding style by airline

Outside-InRandomRear to FrontReverse PyramidRotating ZoneZone/Block Style

United

Southwest
US Airways

Air Canada
Alaska
American
British Airways
Continental
Frontier
JetBlue
Spirit
Virgin Atlantic

 

AirTran

Delta

Outside-In

United refers to their outside-in boarding process as "WilMA" (Window, Middle, Aisle).

United boards Mileage Plus Premier, Mileage Plus Premier Associate, Mileage Plus Premier Executive, and Mileage Plus 1K members first. After elites have boarded, United has courtesy boarding for passengers requiring extra assistance. Then, passengers board windows first, then middle seats, and finally aisles. United instituted this process to speed up boarding and to reduce clogging in the aisles. Passengers in window seats move into their seats, clearing space for middle seat passengers, who then clear space for aisle passengers.

Zones

Elite frequent flyers, passengers with disabilities, and those traveling with small children are asked to board before Zone 1.

  1. First class passengers
  2. Window seats
  3. Middle seats
  4. Aisle seats

Random

Southwest does not assign seats, so getting in the first seating group is crucial when boarding in this free-for-all style, especially if you have carry-on luggage or you want to avoid getting stuck with a middle seat. Boarding groups, which are designated by letters, are assigned at check-in. In order to get the coveted "A" seating area, check in online as early as possible. Because online check-in becomes available 24 hours before the flight is scheduled to depart, get online exactly 24 hours before takeoff for a shot at securing the "A" section.

US Airways has relatively random seating, though the airline does give preference to certain passengers, including elites and those who check in online.

US Airways' Boarding Order

  1. Passengers who need extra time for boarding (i.e. passengers with disabilities and those traveling with young children)
  2. First class, top frequent flyers, and Star Alliance Gold elites from partner airlines
  3. Silver elite members, US Airways credit card holders, and passengers who paid extra for Choice Seats
  4. Economy passengers who checked in online
  5. Economy passengers who checked in at the airport

Rear to Front

American, as well as most domestic and international carriers, uses the standard Rear-to-Front boarding. Elites, followed by first and business class passengers, board first. Then, seats in the back of the plane are boarded followed by the middle section and then the front area.

Reverse Pyramid

As of May 2009, US Airways no longer uses the reverse pyramid boarding style.

Although research shows the reverse pyramid style is an efficient boarding style, US Airways has opted to use the standard random seating order, giving preference to elite flyers and those who checked in online.

Using the reverse pyramid-style, US Airways used to seat their top frequent flyers, along with Star Alliance Gold elites from partner airlines, in seating Area 1. Star Alliance Silver elites were placed in seating Area 2. Seating areas 3-5 were then designated for non-elites. After elites and passengers requiring extra assistance had boarded, US Air would board back windows first, then back middles and front windows, and so on. With the reverse pyramid, passengers simultaneously load an aircraft from back to front and outside in. Window and middle passengers near the back of the plane board first; those with aisle seats near the front enter the plane last.

Zones

  1. Top Elite
  2. Elite and first class
  3. Back windows
  4. Back middles and front windows
  5. Back aisles and front middles
  6. Front Aisles

Rotating Zone

AirTran uses a rotating zone system. Business class passengers board first. Then, seats in the back five rows of the plane are boarded followed by the first five rows of coach, and this back-and-forth continues until all passengers have boarded.

Zone/Block Style

Delta groups passengers into as many as nine zones.

First class passengers and those in the first row of coach are in Zone 1. Zone 2 is for Delta's elite frequent flier members. Zone 3 is for elite members of Delta's partner airlines. After first class and elite passengers, Zone 4+ are designated based on seating assignment, from the back of the plane to the front.

Zones

  1. Top Elite, first class passengers, and first row of coach
  2. Elite Delta frequent flyers
  3. Elite members of partner airlines
  4. Rear
  5. Middle
  6. Front