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Airlines first board passengers with special needs, first-class fliers and top frequent-flier club. Then, their methods vary.

Airline* Boarding method
Air Canada rear to front
AirTran some front rows, followed by some back rows, then some front rows, some back rows, etc.
Alaska rear to front
Aloha passengers who checked in first, then rear to front
America West rear window seats first, then in order: rear middle and front window, most front middle, rear aisle and remaining front middle, front aisle
American rear to front
British Airways rear to front
Continental rear to front
Delta rear to front with window seats first, followed by middle, then aisle
Frontier rear to front
JetBlue random
Maxjet random
Midwest rear to front
Northwest random
Southwest passengers called in groups based on order of check-in. open seating.
Spirit rear to front
Ted window seats, followed by middle and aisle
United window seats, followed by middle and aisle
US Airways rear to front on most flights; America West method on others
Virgin Atlantic rear to front
* airlines may deviate from their policies and use random boarding on small regional jets; Source: Airlines, USA TODAY research by Gary Stoller
Getting fliers on jets faster
Updated 6/27/2006 3:30 AM ET E-mail | Save | Print |
The traditional method of boarding coach passengers — by rows, starting from the rear — is passé at most U.S. airlines.

More than half say they use other methods, according to a USA TODAY survey of major airlines. They include: allowing passengers to board when they wish regardless of seat assignment; boarding fliers with window seats first, followed by middle and aisle; and alternately boarding front sections and back sections. Airlines still allow coach passengers with special needs and their top frequent-flier club members to board first.

Among recent initiatives in boarding coach sections and one-class airliners:

• Northwest Airlines instituted this month a random system, allowing passengers on its U.S. and Asian flights to board in no particular order. Formerly, Northwest boarded its customers by row number, from the back of the plane to the front.

• Delta Air Lines began using a more complex method in February. It boards fliers with window seats in several rear rows, followed by those with middle and aisle seats in the rows. The process continues forward in that manner until all coach passengers are seated. Delta doesn't break up people traveling together.

• Southwest Airlines will begin testing assigned seating next month. The airline has allowed passengers to sit wherever they wish for the past 35 years. Southwest hasn't finalized details of the test, but it plans to examine five different boarding methods, spokeswoman Brandy King says.

Airlines' primary aim is to quickly get planes back into the air and stay on schedule for subsequent flights. "We're looking at ways to cut the turn time," Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton says. "The more you cut your turn time, the more you can use your planes and help improve revenue."

Of 17 U.S. airlines surveyed, seven use the traditional boarding method. Three foreign airlines surveyed — Air Canada, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic — also use the old way.

Boarding time is so important to airlines that America West commissioned the Arizona State University industrial engineering department to find the best method. Its study found it is better to board window seats before middle seats and middle before aisle. Such a method, says the study's lead author, Menkes van den Briel, could be combined with rear-to-front boarding.

Eitan Bachmat, a computer science lecturer at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, has used geometry to determine the best boarding method. He says he agrees with the findings of the Arizona State researchers.

America West implemented their findings in 2003, and it has cut two to five minutes off the boarding process, spokesman Morgan Durrant says.

Other airlines also claim success with new methods. United, which in October began loading window-seat passengers first regardless of their row, has cut four to five minutes off its boarding time, according to spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

Northwest spokesman Dean Breest says the airline's new random seating method saves five to 10 minutes.

Alaska Airlines, however, says it has seen no speed advantage with such a system. Alaska junked its random system last month in favor of the traditional method, by row from rear to front, spokeswoman Amanda Tobin says.

Traveler William Worth, a training director for DeVry University, says Northwest's new method is the fastest he's seen. "On the flights I've been on, it seems the plane is boarded 10 minutes faster" than Northwest's former system, the Atlanta resident says.

Craig Nielson, who works in the office-supply industry, says boarding from the window to the aisle is "obviously the fastest." Delta's boarding policy is the most "efficient," and Southwest's method is "like loading cattle," the Indianapolis frequent flier says.

But Sam Nysenbaum, who works in the footwear industry, believes Southwest has the best policy. He likes the fact that an early check-in allows him to be one of the first on the plane to grab a seat.

Posted 6/27/2006 1:43 AM ET
Updated 6/27/2006 3:30 AM ET E-mail | Save | Print |