Should Passengers Without Bags Get to Board First?

Airlines have tried all manner of boarding processes for years in an attempt to load the plane more quickly. Turnaround time for an aircraft matters — to remain on schedule (delays are costly in terms of labor and misconnects), for customer satisfaction, to avoid losing air traffic control slots (delays can cascade and increasing costs can themselves increase costs).

And what seems to work for awhile no longer works — due to customer complacency, due to changing behaviors, and also varies with how full an aircraft is.

Checked bag fees mean more bags are brought onboard where possible. Although whereas airlines used to allow two carryon bags US government regulations now only allow one (and a ‘personal item’) as a way of speeding up a still-slow security process. The net effect of more bags is driven largely by full aircraft. And full aircraft means lots of time stowing bags, not enough room for all the bags, time spent searching out overhead space, and time spent gate checking luggage.

There are things that can be done to speed up boarding and deplaning. Using more than one jetbridge (or using forward and rear stairs) is one.

American thinks they’ve found another in allowing people without carryons to board in “zone 2.” That way more people are on the aircraft and other passengers working out where to put their rollaboards doesn’t delay those passengers without from getting situated.

I saw a variant on the theme about six weeks back in San Diego when gate agents announced that anyone choosing to gate check a bag (free) would be rewarded with early boarding. I was vexed at the time — after all, if you don’t have bags to stow why on earth would you need to board early?

The benefit, to me, of early boarding is having space for your carryon and having it near your seat even. But with no carryon the last thing I would want to do is be on the aircraft longer.

Although I suppose since it’s something people “get to do” they will want to do it. And somehow here’s a desire to “get situated” as though it takes a long time sans carry on to put a small bag underneath the seat and buckle up. (I get that families with small children may be another matter, but with most carriers they are already given the opportunity to board early… and what some families try to pass off as ‘small children’ for the privilege is often extreme to say the least — as well as the number of family members that try to board with one 13 year old.)

Do I think this new privilege will be revolutionary? Absolutely not. Will it make some difference to boarding time at the margin? Perhaps. Until it doesn’t any longer. And only in those instances where boarding order is clearly communicated and enforced. I suspect boarding might also be sped up by an airline that decided to keep the boarding gate clear of those not yet “on deck” to have their rows called….

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Early boarding, even if without bags, is critical to have first possession of your assigned seat to defend against seat poachers. I overstayed in the lounge earlier this week and wound up being shunted from my extra legroom bulkhead aisle seat to a middle seat further back simply because another passenger decided she wanted my seat instead and simply refused to move (covered her head with a blanket and refused to respond to crew requests to take her assigned seat).

  2. I think this is a move in the right direction. Frankly, the move towards checked bag fees and thus increased carryons and increased boarding time has never made much sense in my mind. Couldnt they make more revenue by reducing turnaround through efficient processes (e.g. NOT having 200 people trying to load their roll aboards) than they gain off the bag fees?

    Certainly any airline that could tout reduced tarmac time would be a draw to the business traveler.

  3. The idea is silly and ineffective. Look, Southwest manages to create an orderly boarding process. The other airlines have tried to do the same by using zone boarding, and other aspects but the only thing that works is the whole package: telling people specifically where to wait. It eliminates congestion caused by the gate lice crowding the line, bypasses the whole issue of separate lines, and gets the planes out on time. Learn from success.

  4. I agree that when I travel and have a small or no personal item, the last thing I want to do is sit on the plane any longer than I have to.

    Not a benefit to me unless I was unscrupulous with a late group #, gate checked a bag for free and then continued to put my personal item in the overhead anyway for extra legroom since we know there is no way to police this once people get on the plane.

  5. Ok, combine the two ideas…early boarding with no bags and Southwest’s open seating. Now we’re talking.

  6. Seems to me like this just induces more people to buy “Priority AAccess”… If you have a bag and want to get on before people without carry-ons, there’s your option, if I read the new boarding process correctly. My question is, who enforces that those people who have bags that will fit under the seat, actually put their bag under the seat, and not up in the overhead compartment. That could get quite contentious, I would think.

  7. People without luggage do not need more time to board.

    I have watched many times [Alaska Airlines anyone?] while people with large bags that will never fit under the seat in front of them are allowed to board ahead of me and my rolling luggage. The agent always seems to let them through. When you get on the plane, you see they have put their bag in the overhead bin. Basically, they lie their way onto the plane so they get first crack at the limited overhead space.

    Note to airlines: Add a “bag-sizer” device at the gate so that people have to prove any questionable bag will fit under the seat in front of them. Selective enforcement, eyeballing, etc. only irritates and degrades passengers. Then again, maybe that is what the airlines want: to demoralize people into paying to check their bags.

  8. I am with you, why on earth would I want to be onboard 30 minutes early if I didnt have luggage to store. @seanM, if that story is true, and I have my doubts, that lady got really lucky. Refusing to follow crew member instructions is a federal offense and a good way to end up in a world of trouble.

  9. I think that it’s an idea worth experimenting with. People with roller bags frequently block the aisles so why not get people without bags seated first.

    However, I agree with you. If you don’t need the overhead space, then what’s the rush to board?

  10. @Dan – Federal law doesn’t apply on Ethiopian Airlines flights between Addis Ababa and Lilongwe. 🙂 Possession is ten tenths of the law there. You either get there first or make do with whatever is left.

  11. Yes, let the people without bags on faster. They can quickly get in their seat and out of the way.

  12. doomed to fail. The rule here for AA, is that one can board with a carry on – not a rollerboard – that will “easily fit under the seat in front of you” HOW on earth are they going to police that if at all? You KNOW people are going to be getting on with their backpacks and bags of stuff, and laptops cases, etc., and are going to be putting THOSE items in the overhead bin – and thus taking up the space.

    I SERIOUSLY doubt that the FA who are onboard when group 1 boards are going to keep the bins closed, or police whether or not some PE, or EP or 1K or whatever has put their “bag” in the overhead bin

  13. Thanks for the great post. I think a major contributing factor to delays–and one that can be easily solved– is arranging for better boarding by zone. Recently at JFK I had early boarding and the number of people crowded around the departure gate really slowed it down for those of us battling our way through the throng. And then the zone 2s were mixed in with the zone 3s, and people elbowing and shoving their wheelies to “be first” when they had no right to…..I’m thinking the red ropes might be the answer.

  14. The only way this works is if it encourages more people not carry on bags- but the incentive is too small. Otherwise, all you are doing is shifting the congestion to later in the boarding process, as all the people with bags slow each other down. If the same number of people still carry on bags, you will actually board more slowly, because of more aisle congestion.

    Here’s a good simulation of different boarding methods-

    Of the main ones used, window seats first is the most efficient (along with Southwest, but then there’s no seat assignments). The most interesting option is the “Flying Carpet” – Complex, but it makes a lot of sense, because you can board all rows simultaneously.

  15. Not a terrible idea.

    Although the idea seems absurd to most of us I bet the vast majority of infrequent flyers would prefer boarding sooner than later, even without the need for bin space.

    Anything which encourages less carry-ons is a plus in my book.

  16. Come on – “get to board early” implies some customer reward / benefit. American could give an F about the custie – but if they can turn a plane 2 minutes early that affects the bottom line.

    I actually think this stands a good chance of helping – which is why they are testing it. Every airline tries all kinds of stuff, but the actual people who get paid to board planes (gate agents) don’t get rewarded because the five diamond members get extra wood.

    Anyway, this is the wrong angle to think about this – if the plane gets boarded faster, that’s awesome. I’m 2P UAL, board early for my overhead bin carryon, and then watch our flight leave late because the elite fliers can’t handle the overhead bins, let alone the unwashed masses (or in my case, the minutes I waste waiting for the inept “paying cash first class passengers” to get seated).

    And yes – Southwest does it better IMO because the free checked bags means the masses don’t cram as much overhead.

  17. Glad to hear others share my same method/madness, as I thought I was an outlier. Short of the benefit of getting settled into my seat for the flight, if I do not have prime seating and no need to “fight” for overhead space, I tend to not board until I must, i.e. minimize my time in a tight seat as much as possible. What’s the rush? (Cue: George Carlin’s bit on “pre-boarding” a plane.)

    Have airlines gone to a more “Steffen Method” of airplane boarding?

  18. Today’s post has me thinking back to when FedEx began offering “Luggage Bag” service.

    Basically, travelers could put their packed suitcase into a “Luggage Bags”, drop it off at a FedEx location a few days before traveling where it would then be shipped directly to the traveler’s destination hotel.

    FedEx calls it “Travel Luggage-Free, Stress-Free”.

    I haven’t tried this service, but it is supposed to be around the cost of a checked bag fee.

  19. Don’t they hafta get out of their seat anyways to let rowmates sit? Maybe people in window seats should be seated first.

  20. I’m a window seat person so I like to board early so I don’t disrupt the flow by making others get up for me. If I had an aisle seat and no overhead bag I’d board last.

  21. Why would people without bags need to board first? the people with larger roller bags should board first so they easily stow there bags while there is still room and no body in the way holding them up.

  22. While “gate lice” can be an annoyance to those trying to board, I don’t recall seeing an actual example of their delaying the overall process.

  23. Here’s the only reason we could figure out: you get to avoid the jetway and aisle line when boarding. If everyone is just stowing their purse/murse under the seat, your boarding goes faster and you can Instagram pictures of winglets from your seat until the door closes.

  24. I agree. This will work until it doesn’t and it will be sooner rather than later that passengers will begin abusing the process.

    Another reason Southwest works so well is that not only do they have signs and lanes informing passengers where to que, but their cabin attendants also assist with stowing baggage and making room for everyone.

    It still kills me that cabin crews on the legacies just stand there and do nothing while folks board. Of course, they are not getting paid while the door is open, so suppose i cannot blame them. But cabin crews are essential to an efficient boarding process.

  25. Better solutions:

    1. Actually enforce the size limits on carry on bags (this would solve half the problems)
    2. Board window-seat passengers and those seated towards the rear of the aircraft first
    3. Board all the morons last, that way they can all fight each other as they mill around the aisles

    Problems solved.

    You’re welcome.

  26. I had the privilege of flying Frontier a few weeks ago…seems like they’ve been doing this ‘board early if you have no bag’ concept for a while.

    I’m also a window seat person, so I like to be on the plane early enough not to make others stand up and move. Being a UA elite means I’ve got used to early boarding, and I also usually travel with a very small bag, so I admit I actually appreciated Frontier allowing me on first.

  27. Agree with Gary here–if I don’t have something that needs to go into the overhead, I make sure that I’m the last person onto the plane.

  28. I would much rather have government regulation enact a standardized maximum carry-on luggage size which would then be enforced before security checkpoint. This should then be coupled with a max # of items. No one with a bag over the standardized size would get through security and said violator(s) will in turn be asked to turn around and check the bag(s) with their airline.

  29. 1. This is not aimed at most of us who read this blog – I assume most of the readers here are elites and can board when we want.
    2. This is a “perceived” benefit (marketing) for those who pay to check their bags or have no bags. No carry on? Yes you are special and get to board earlier. Big benefit if you are usually stuck in group 4 (to some). If you don’t want to board earlier – don’t, but now you have the option. Most everyone likes being moved ahead of others.
    3. The email referred to a “personal item” that would fit under the seat, so the guy carrying the giant backpack may not qualify. It should be quite easy to enforce.
    4. If you can get more people to check their bag, then the plane loads faster and AA makes more $$ with no extra cost to them.

  30. I think it will help if their goal is cutting 2 minutes. On American Eagle regional jets the bins are small so they have you check your rollaboards for free at the gate. It seems to work pretty good. I think people who are dragging everything aboard to avoid baggage fees will go for free gate checking so it will lesson the time spent loading due to less bin congestion. Probably less stress for many too.

  31. In my experience, Southwest boarding is MUCH faster than United. Not completely sure why – but what can the other airlines learn from this?

  32. Good grief.

    This playing expert about the ATC system is just silly. IFR slots have very little relevance here. Mostly because there’s only a handful of airports in the entire country that require slot reservations.

  33. @mike smith during weather events and flying TO not just from high density airports and through high density airspace.

  34. If I have no bags I board last…but then I’m usually in coach. I hate spending more time on the plane than I have to.

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