The CEO Of American Airlines Explains Why Back-To-Front Boarding Doesn’t Work

Airlines want to board planes quickly. A short delay has knock-on effects, because the next flight is likely delayed and the next flight. Passengers miss their connections, bags don’t make their next flight either, and crew delayed on one flight delay other flights too (and may even reach their maximum duty hours for the day, leading to cancelled flights).

So the science of how to board a plane quickly matters a great deal to the bottom line. Southwest Airlines has said it would cost them 8-10 planes per day just to add “a couple of minutes of block time to each flight in our schedule.”

Every so often airlines tinker with their boarding process, trying to speed things up. Southwest tends to board quickly because the order in which a passenger boards determines where they’ll sit on the plane. So they show up at the gate 30 minutes before their flight and they line up in a usually orderly fashion. Airlines with assigned seating do not have that advantage.

One study found an optimal board process would be to board

passengers in a series of waves, with the first passengers called to board seated in window seats two rows apart—first 30A, then 28A, then 26A and so on. Next, the same for the other side of the plane (30F, 28F, 26F). The process continues with odd row window seats on either side, middle seats, and finally aisle seats. Each person can sit down within moments of one another without getting in anyone’s way. In field tests, it proved to be almost twice as fast as most conventional methods, and 20% to 30% faster than have-at-it, entirely random boarding—which is also faster than the method used by airlines. (He too would board slower passengers requiring assistance first.)

In the real world you can’t do that. Doug Parker explains that there are customer considerations, and you can’t just do whatever is best for fast boarding. Especially now you want to socially distance passengers during the boarding process, even if most airlines are no longer blocking seats and planes are increasingly full.

He explained in a meeting with flight attendants earlier in the month why American Airlines won’t move to ‘back-to-front’ boarding despite its intuitive appeal:

We have looked at that, we’ve studied it, and while it may seem better to have people go from back to front ..what you really want to do is window-to-aisle but if you do that you split up families and things.

When you do back-to-front there is just as much if not even more in some cases interaction with customers getting up and out of the aisle as there is with our process.

So what we choose to do instead is tell our frequent flyers – our elite customers – they can board whenever they like and then we use our normal boarding process.

And then we ask when you leave, because we have everyone actually window-to-aisle and they’ll leave properly..but we’ve seen no increase in the lack of close interaction by going back-to-front versus the process we use.

..We’ve studied this with operations engineers who go look and watch and we don’t see any material change and in some cases more interaction.

You can’t split up families, so the ‘theoretically best boarding order’ doesn’t work. And back-to-front leads to bunching as well. And since those don’t work out as well in practice as in theory, their regular boarding process stands.

This is why airlines all tinker with their process from time to time and never stop tinkering, because they’re never been able to do much to improve – with few exceptions.

In the early days of Southwest Airlines they struggled financially and returned one of their planes. They kept the bulk of their schedule despite having one fewer aircraft. And to do that they needed to turn planes in 10 minutes. Passengers were deplaning out the rear of the aircraft while new passengers were getting on. Southwest’s cabin crew even do light cleaning of the aircraft between flights.

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. So for a year we have all.been adjusting to the new norm… covid
    Restrictions that will stay with us for years to come!
    I see no reason why you would not continue to wear your mask in such a confined place as:
    *Tin Can Air Plane
    Just the statistical data for regular seasonal flue in 2020…… MASKS are essential to air travel.
    Save time install UV Blue Lights in the the planes.
    Went from few planes, nobody complained time, to full on loaded schedule worried extra safety time…. Where are your Priorities MR. CEO

  2. Parker is obviously kowtowing to frequent fliers, business travelers and first class fliers.
    Back to front boarding is more efficient and logical.

  3. David said it best. Its appeasing the haves n their demand to b regarded as haves. Then the plane goes down n all of a sudden everyones equal.

  4. The way of undertaking of political garbage in terms of the entering resume of things that a political and garbage of opening up to the college of indeed of ones self of one another of political tomorrow times of a garbage in terms of open things of political controversies of ones another in terms of opening up to the right theories of great political and thoughtful of ideas and great things of great resumes of great things of open theories of great things of great windows.

  5. Everytime I’ve flown your way. The front people boarding first have plugged the aisle preventing everyone (uncluding families) from moving past them. Don’t families usually get seats close to one another? Our family always does especially when children are involved. I taught college & high school Physics, Math, Astronomy & Computer Programming for over 38 years and believe I know about efficiency enough to know the way you think is fastest way of boarding the plane obviously is NOT the fastest way. If you afraid of breaking up families, don’t. Let families board from back to front as they’ve already decided as a family whose by the window or aisle no matter what their ticket says. Why should all the back seated people continueing wait as people who sit in the front aisles block the aisles. Boarding, back to front, could be almost as fast as deboarding, front to back, is only common sense. If you deboarded the way you board you’d have mutiny on you hands. Those who are first become last and those who are last become first, it’s biblical besides. The back get on first and off last and frequent fliers would appreciate the efficiency besides. I do admit when I fly with my wife she’s scared the flights overbooked and she will not get a seat unless she fights to be the first in her group on the plane but when I fly alone, I’m relaxed and don’t care if I’m the last one on the plane and the last one off the plane. I’ve literally given the shirt off my back to strangers many times and traded the best seat on the plane for the worst seat many times also; so I am not your ordinary flyer. I know you have your real reasons but to say your breaking up families doesn’t hold any weight if you let families load together no matter where they sit (usually together I bet) and do back to front loading and front to back unloading. (Period)

  6. Parker is spewing BS. Back to front works. How many times has he stood there in the cabin and watched the process? Zero would be my guess. Once or twice for a photo op at most. As a 24+ year major airline pilot I’ve seen it hundreds of times and our cabin crew have seen it more than I have. Back to front works. Period. Stop wasting time on “studies”. Make it happen.

  7. I have flown all over Asia and they board front and rear. Very efficient. They should all take lessons from Singapore airlines

  8. I recently flew American. I have flown Delta throughout the pandemic. My last flight was American and it was awful for boarding. Seats are small and you have no choice but to touch the person next to you. Plane itself was filthy

  9. Back to front boarding works best. Front to back exiting works best too. I suggest that airlines charge for carry-on bags and make firts bags checked through free. This puts time consuming overhead storing of bags into an expensive luxury category. Less overhead bags will speed up the boarding process.

  10. Why wouldn’t first class want to be boarded last anyways? It means they don’t have to rush to the gate.

  11. Let’s face it. You want ppl to board fast? Have all luggage checked. That’s what takes so long and why ppl want to board first. So they have can find room to put their luggage close to them.

  12. Back to front doesn’t work and I say that with 36 years of airline experience. So all the above who say otherwise….
    Why doesn’t it work? Simply put: we’re herding humans with all their belongings, inexperience’s, attitudes, experiences, health conditions, stuff bags, last minute items they want out of their bags as they reach their rows, etc.
    Say you board the last rows, 25-30. On an single aisle aircraft that’s 6 rows of 6 or 36 humans. Now, the first person on is 26D, aisle seat. He/she leads the group on and stops at 26D and starts putting their items away. 35 people behind him/her are stopped. He/she sits down and a few passengers pass by and arrive at their seats and everyone stops behind again. This is also blocking passengers in rows 20-25 who are now backed up too.
    At 26D, the passenger in 26F has arrived. 26D must get up and move into the aisle to let 26F in and everyone has to stop again to allow this action to happen.
    Meanwhile, rows 15-19 have been called and are backed up in the aisle waiting for all these little “transactions” to take place. And don’t forget the slow elderly passenger. The first time traveler. The mother with a baby and baby bags. The uncooperative child. Etc.
    Back to front doesn’t work because of these inconsistent transactions and variables in these groups. A shot gun approach, while also not completely efficient, is more efficient than a straight back to front system.
    As I have informed management of a particular airline, “boarding is what boarding is”…there are too many variables to tackle to make it more efficient.

  13. I think they should have boarding based on experience and history. The more times you fly, the closer to the early part of boarding. You know what to do, you’ve seen the cretins who bring on too much luggage, and you know how to get out of the aisle while stowing your smallish carryon, while putting your Starbucks on the floor so as not to spill it while taking your laptop out of your under seat briefcase.


  14. 1st class and “elite” boarding is the problem. 1st class passengers are up and down while the rest of the passengers are boarding. Furthermore, the 1st class flight attendants are blocking the aisle sevring coffee and wine during boarding.
    Keep these people off the plane until last. Give them a litte area in the waiting area and they can drink all they want there.
    Then board back to front. That AA exec doesnt know what he’s talking about. Fly economy and find out what is really going on.

  15. They should do the faster version but charge a small amount if people want/need to board together

  16. Several years ago I was in Houston with 110 youth athletes. The planes were all delayed so you can imagine the scene at the gate this Friday afternoon. The gate attendants freaked when they saw our group knowing there were so many impatient travelers wanting to get out ASAP. I went over the the gate attendant and asked she just give me 10 minutes and I’d have the kids on the planes faster than she could wink. I lined the kids up by seat…highest number first then by seat…A,B,C F,E,D…overhead goes in immediately and then get right into you seat. I explained the process to the gate attendant and she actually let us on after the Elite groups. With all 110 in their seats already, they let the other passengers on with the “normal” back to front. The usual mess with people standing in the aisles, putting luggage in the overhead and then having to get back out into the aisle when the window guy showed up. While the airlines may not be able to randomly replicate that, maybe the ticket should have a number like Southwest but rather than random seating, they number you by your place in line, including the Elite fliers using my formula. It definitely worked and made the gate attendants VERY happy as well as the of 100 passengers on that flight.

  17. I fully agree with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker: many, many different patterns of boarding have been tried by many airlines. I know: I have flown millions of miles, all over the world, on multiple airlines. I’ve see many different boarding processes. Some, that should be much faster, have been much less than optimal. Some are a bit faster, but overall my impression is the same as Mr. Parker’s: the boarding process is more or less optimal the way it is today.

    What seems to help the most is what American (and some other domestic carriers) is doing: expanding the size of their overhead bins to facilitate more luggage storage. Their overheads on the new 737 MAX8 are GREAT !! Same for their overheads on the international 777-300ER and on the 787’s. That speeds up boarding dramatically (so quick and easy to stow a rollaboard bag).

    I think in this case that Doug Parker hit the nail on the head. And it is to American’s advantage to have board flow as smoothly and quickly as possible.

    Marshall Spearman

  18. First you want to watch insanity then boarding and deboarding it is. You are dealing with grown adults (majority of the time) and they still cannot find their seat even looking at a boarding pass with the number on it with the corresponding number below the overhead storage. Next enforce the carryon rule. One item to fit under your seat. No overhead luggage. I have seen passengers come with baggage they cannot lift and stand in boarding passengers way waiting on someone to help them all the while blocking the other passengers from getting to their seat.. And one of the above commenters is correct. They get to their seat and have to take out, laptops, tablets, magazines, etc. before taking their seat. Next you have the inconsiderate jerks who board first, put their luggage in the front overhead bins and go to the back of the plane to their seat. Then the passengers in the front don’t have a place to put their luggage as these inconsiderate jerks have taken all of the space so the flight attendant is tasked with opening all of the bins to try and find space, if there is none then it has to be checked. You will never solve this problem as long as you are dealing with these inconsiderate “Karen’s/Ken’s. And one last thing not related but I am sure most people agree with it. Take a bath, wash your nasty feet if you are going to wear flip flops or sandals. Put on clean clothes, don’t show up looking like you spent the night in a dumpster. Keep your shoes on, no one wants to see or smell your nasty feet. And last don’t put your feet on the person in front of you arm rest and don’t interfere with the persons in back of you space.

  19. If you look at traffic flow studies you will see that a slow driver or accident can cause ripples in the traffic patterns long after they have left the area. Planes have some similar problems with one inexperienced or inconsiderate flyer causing a slowdown for those behind them. And the airlines do share blame in not enforcing baggage policies while increasing bag fees that causes more flyers to not check bags.
    Anecdotally, I had never experienced passengers backed all the way up the jet bridge to the ticket scanner before back to front boarding.

  20. Let’s be real here. The most efficient boarding would be ripping out an entire column of seats so that one person could pass another.

  21. Back to front boarding is the most efficient that I have experienced because passengers are not blocking the aisle at row 10 trying to put carryon luggage that is too heavy for them to lift into the overhead bin meanwhile backing passengers up on the jet bridge. Further if airlines allowed first checked bag for free rather than announcing at the gate that the flight is full and overhead space will be limited (then offering to check wheeled carry-ons for free at the gate) boarding would move a lot more effectively. In the past three months I have witnessed multiple flights where people show up at the gate with 2-3 wheeled carry-ons knowing that they will be allowed to “check” the bag at the gate for free because the flight is full and therefore they will avoid paying the fee to check their luggage through the normal procedure where they would have to pay for the checked bag. I flew last month and I stopped counting at the 15th person who checked their bag for free at the gate.

  22. Worked for a company who manufactured passenger aircraft interiors. Just have passengers view films of what happens to overhead luggage during a crash and see how those big items become flying missals. Add to that that they are strewn abo0ut the cabin making it impossible for anyone to safely get by to emergency exits. I suggest all bags be checked except those that can fit under a seat. Airlines can lower the weight of the aircraft by taking out the overhead bins. Personal Service Units would still be installed for light, air and emergency mask deployments. Less fuel, more spacious feeling for the passengers, etc. At least enforce the size limit on carryon luggage (in fact, make it smaller). Like stated earlier, passengers attempt to thwart the checked baggage dilemma but it shouldn’t be at the cost of other passengers not to mention the crash risk of those items falling out of the bins.

  23. Doug Parker is an idiot. His lousy boarding/disembarking is the reason I missed my connection at Dallas because of their waiting period between group offloads. I do everything I can to avoid as my connecting flight left 10 minutes early which means they already gave away my seat on that flight and the next two flights were oversold by over 10 people each, I finally gave up, walked away from a paid AA flight and flew Delta. I never appreciated how good Delta’s service was until then.

  24. Why does this man still have a job? A loser CEO for a loser airline. I suggest start using more than 1 door, use the back, pull the steps up and let people on and off. If you’re too old or too lazy to use this option then use the regular jetway.

  25. If you cannot break up families, why not make families board last? Use the window to aisle technique, then board families.

  26. Airlines have it all backwards…….they should CHARGE for “carry-on” suitcases and allow all suitcases to be checked as baggage for FREE.

    Boarding with your suitcase is more “convenient” and so there should be a charge NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND!

    It would also make all boarding faster!!!!!

  27. I’ve always been mystified why anyone who paid extra for a front seat would want to be boarded first, and then get elbowed in the head or bashed in the face by shoulder bags of the other 200 people who then have to squeeze past them to get to their seats in the back.
    If front-to-back boarding were really more efficient, then deplaning back-to-front would be more efficient also. But they don’t do that, because it isn’t.
    Back-to-front boarding, and front-to-back deplaning, is clearly more efficient. The only reason for front-to-back boarding is to put on a show of privilage for those to bought more expensive tickets.

    I agree with the comments about carry-on luggage — that’s is a BIG part of what slows down boarding. Checked baggage should be free, and ONE carry-on per passenger, that fits under the seat. Additional carry-on bags should be charged a fee.

    Once upon a time, you used to be able to check a bag or two for FREE, so long as it wasn’t over the weight limit; we need to get back to that.

    Front-to-back boarding is ridiculous — it’s like trying to fill a glass from top to bottom.

  28. This has to be some of the silliest crap I’ve read… bact to front loading would definitely be the most efficient and cost effective way of boarding. The CEO needs to stop with with that bull crap and think as a CEO!!!!

  29. Agreed on the non-sensical response by this CEO. The charging of onboard bags should be after the 1st with a limit of 2, stricter and enforced size requirements of ALL onboard baggage, 1st bag checked free, and the back to front boarding, period. Agree also with how does the justification of having front passengers board and subjecting them to the perennial rudeness of later boarding passengers. There needs to be a qualified/quantified study to lay this subject to rest. Publish results, and prove that front to back makes any sense.

  30. Back to front. It’s a no brainer. It’s 2022 people, let’s make it happen.

  31. Numerical order Back to front with A and F seats first, then B and E, then C and D. You miss your spot in line, you board the next flight; if there’s room. If not, you get shuffled to the Flight For Dummies a.k.a. the Tedeye to your destination. Guarantee after the first year of complaining by everyone, it will become the New Norm. 😉

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