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. Abey..Yes EU does 2 doors and it works…. If board back to front..people still cannot find their seats in the back and cause a bottle-neck anyway…

  2. The solution is to remove fees for checked baggage, and to charge fees for carryons.

    Every flight I take now, people take massive carryons, knowing full well it will be taken to the cargo hold for free once they reach the gate.

    The problem with slow loading is people being stupid and greedy. That simple. THEY want to make sure they get their space overhead, so instead of reaching their seat, sitting down, and waiting with their carryon on their lap, they stop in the middle of the aisle, hold the entire plane up, while they try and cram their massive carryon into the overhead compartment, simply so you don’t get a crack at a spot before they can stand up again.

    Try it sometime. Wait until they do last call, then “board”. Watch how long you still stand, because people can’t sit their butts down. Stop the madness, and get planes boarded in ten minutes.

  3. I don’t understand why back to front doesn’t work. People still get out of their seats?
    What? Why does it matter if a few get out? No one would be wanting to go behind them bc they aren’t sitting back there.

  4. i agree with the above statements. charge for carry on and free checked luggage..

    I know southwest still doesn’t charge but people still bring bags on. so if you charge for carryon they may just check it free.

  5. American ceo is a dumb ass. Lying thru his teeth. Back to front is always faster. Was in passenger service over 20 years. Even as first class passenger I prefer the back to load then get on. Do not need to watch every one stopped and then take a step.

  6. Totally agree about carryons
    Rules usually not enforced, so many have huge suitcases that often don’t fit, need help putting them up and getting them down.

  7. As a retired gate agent for said company who’s CEO says it doesn’t work, let me just say, it does work! I can board a full 757 in 15 mins boarding from back to front! Even once they changed and boarded top tiers first there were several times I was in a time constraint and told my passengers in order to get out before a crew went illegal I was going old school. No one complained when we were boarded and door shut in 15 mins. Only people who barked were the top tiers because they didn’t get their acknowledgement! Just go back to basics! Allow those first 2 bags free at checkin and charge at the gate for too large of carry ons. The only problem I see with that is they think 1 person working a flight now is ok and it’s NOT! Too many things go wrong!

  8. We fly often to Hawaii because we have family there. You can tell many of the passengers do not fly often just by how they act. When we flew Hawaiin Air in Dec./Jan. one of their covid protocols was to load from the back to front. I was amazed how quickly everyone boarded. The flight we take is usually about 95% full. This this flight was about 80% capacity but everyone got to their seats quickly and we began pushback a few minutes early!

    I don’t buy the line that back to front does not save time.

  9. I have to agree with many of the comments. The CEO is full of it and doubling down in dumb. I have moved from the gate to the cockpit and travel as a passing passenger enough to be top tier on several airlines. Back to front, with some leaning to outside to inside is much quicker. AA’s 9000 boarding groups is ridiculous. It is a nod to their frequent flyers and credit card holders, nothing more.

    I’m my past life I flew CRJ-200. It would take 30 minutes to turn a 50 seat plane. SW does a 150-180 seat plane in 25. When I was in a time bind I often came to the gate to get boarding old school but quickly without the gate agent getting in trouble.

  10. How about…

    No carryons first.

    1 carryon second

    2 carryon third

    2 carryon + backpack, shopping bags, etc last.

    Without fail the people who take longest and hold things up are those with large or extra carryons.

  11. Back to front is definately better. Your standing in line waiting to board, by the time you reach the back seat, I’ve had to put my ONE bag 5 rows ahead of me.WHAT! REALLY PEOPLE! people boarding in the front take MUCH LONGER to put their bags up & some end up in the back area taking up my space which has happened several times. Front seat passengers still get on the plane, they NEED to get on last. The CEO is talking without HIS BRAIN & everything he said doesnt make SENSE!

  12. Like the first commenter said, they are clearly optimizing for profit rather than efficiency. Many people select airlines based on the cost of the ticket so the airlines try to keep the ticket costs low. Then they try to make up for it by shaking you down for as much cash as possible after the ticket sale. In order to create motivation to pay for premium boarding, they create a scarcity of overhead space with their otherwise irrational policy of charging for checked bags before the gate but making it free at the gate. This motivates people to try and board sooner and some people are willing to pay for it. A related consideration is that they want to keep their customers such as business travelers who are relatively price insensitive. Again the artificially created scarcity works here. They can make the so-called elite travelers feel special with privileged boarding status, and many of those people will select the airline that makes them feel the most special. Since all commercial airline travel has been made miserable to maximize butts per square inch they have to get creative on how to convey a sense of privilege. I never understood why boarding early was a good thing. Although I am active duty and can usually board after the first few groups of special people, I prefer to wait until last call to minimize time in the uncomfortable seats.

  13. Good idea but ppl cheat. How many times have you seen ppl try to get on with an oversized bag? The time it’ll take for gate agents to deal with this is time they could be on board.

  14. Gates should be configured so as to also use the rear door of the aircraft. I know SWA does that in Burbank.

  15. If the issue is to minimize boarding time, then reverse the bag charges:
    1. Offer free checked in bag
    2. Charge for the carry on (except backpack or personal item)

    And for goodness sake: board BACK to FRONT!

    It’s that simple.
    Stop the nonsense & excuses… people see right through that

  16. Post carry on restrictions & enforce them! By the time you deplane & get to baggage claim the wait time, if any, is minimal!! These huge, cumbersome carry ons are ridiculous!

    Not believing boarding back to front is not more efficient…

  17. I am a 35 year employee with AA. We used to board from Back to Front a long time ago but they quit. From Parker all the way down, USAir Executives don’t know how to run an airline. It would Boggle your mind to see the stupidity that is in charge and the decisions they make. The only conclusion I can come up with is there setting it up to fail and they’re right on track. Can you say bankruptcy number for 4 or is it 5

  18. Back to front boarding works. What doesn’t work are the egos of premium passengers.

  19. This CEO is a liar and could care less about social distancing. It’s a known fact that American Airline flight are packed to capacity with no consideration for the times we live. Also I agree with other posters front to back is the best boarding scenario as well as, charging for carryons. I would also go as far to say, if you don’t have any carryon you should be allowed to de-board the plane first.

  20. It’s simple, really. Airlines do not listen to customers…they look at dollars and profits. They will say whatever they think we need to hear. Back to front boarding works. It’s simple. It really does work. Anyone who says otherwise is a profit talking head.

  21. I am fine boarding last. I carry only a small soft bag and by boarding last I don’t have people climbing over me and jostling me. I do get frustrated that airlines don’t enforce carry on bag limits since I pay for my slightly too large bag while others check them at the plane door for free.

  22. No matter what you think someone else believes the opposite and can prove it.

    Facts are meaningless anymore

  23. I remember when they always boarded back to front. I don’t necessarily remember if it was in fact faster, but it probably was somewhat.

    It’s really all about the overhead space. Frequent Flyers want their space and if the plane boards back to front they might not get any.

    Also, I have flown first class occasionally and it never seems to amaze me how long it takes first class passengers to get into their seats. It seems we are constantly waiting in the jet bridge for them to get out of aisle and get settled. When I see people behind me when I’m already to my seat, I step into my row and let as many people go by as I can before trying to get my bag into the overhead storage bin.

    How about a hybrid system where the Frequent Flyers board first and then all others board back to front? Or are they already doing that?

  24. This guy is a complete liar. The reason they board people in the front first has everything to do with first class and social status. Google that shit

  25. Forget about different boarding groups.Enforce the carryon rules and size restrictions at the gate. It might mean have a low paid employee to check the sizing at the entrance to the gate area and if it is too large it is checked with the gate agent before the boarding process begins and then board from back to front. Did anyone ever think about the fact that the rear of the aircraft actually arrives first.

  26. Can’t split families up? For goodness sake, I can board a plane withou my husband standing next to me! I have been saying this for years, board from the windows, in. Board parents with children and a window seat first. There, done!

  27. The only problem with any of these loading methods is always going to be the “HUMAN FACTOR”. It’s never possible to get everyone on the plane to do so in an efficient and timely manner. Sometimes I wonder where these peoples heads are when all they have to do is follow the rules, and keep their heads in the game for just the time required to put your bag up and sit down. I cant tell you how many times I’ve watched people go all the way to the back of the plane looking for their seat, only to realize they are sitting in row 6. If people got their heads out for at least 30 min. during the boarding time, things would go much faster no matter what the boarding order is.

  28. Do the exact opposite of what you’re doing now.
    Handicap people, people with children, first class passengers should board last since they take the longest.
    Handicap people usually have an isle seat so if they board last they won’t have to get up again to let people in.
    Make boarding last the “special” seating.
    I agree, charge $35 for carry-ons, free for 1st checked bag, $10-20 for 2nd checked bag.
    Free to check all kid related items like strollers, etc, and they don’t count as the 1st checked bag. Charge higher ($45) bag fees at the gate too, to encourage checking them at ticketing for $35 and this will speed up security too.
    Change up the baggage handling too so bags hit the carousel faster which will encourage people to check more bags and not carry on. Instead of loading all bags on one train, divide up into smaller trains but more of them. Incentives the baggage handlers to get bags to the carousel faster.
    Then do back to front and window in loading.
    If that still isn’t fast enough, give free food to people that can get seated in under a minute. Think timer app!

  29. Back to front definitely works, I’ve been a gate agents for several years and it’s the fastest method to board. Less passengers standing in the jet bridge and aisle. Families will not be split up if they are seated together from check in or gate seat changes.

  30. I do believe carry ons is hectic, people would do anything yhe avoid paying that baggage fee. With the carry ons people tends to hold up the aisle from everyone else. Especially when it’s time to exit the plane as well. Charge for extra carry ons watch how quickly carry ons go down to 1 bag to no bags.. Lol. Back to front makes the most sense and no one skipping over the other trying to get to the seat… Excuse I’m in the back… Ohhh, my seat in the front… Smh. Total waste of time.

  31. Why worry about social distancing in line to board when once you are in the plane they pack you in like sardines? But ooooh bit God forbid you let your mask slip past your nose. American flight attendants lose their minds and threaten to charge you criminally and not let you fly American ever again for something that is not even a LAW.

  32. Tweak the plane schedules A little for few more minutes load time..Load back to front.. Limit, 1 CARRY ON… And get it done.. Not rocket science.

  33. The obvious next step is to do away with boarding passes and start using a boarding app that tells you when to board in 30 second windows. If you miss your 30 second window, you are put in another seat. Then the airline will track passengers and their relative requires boarding time to optimize on where to place slow boarders vs fast boarders. There is an easy technological solution to all of this. In the case that a person doesn’t have a smart phone, the airline will rent out a device to them. This gives the added advantage of advertising and a traveling media center in the airport. Why this is not a thing already is beyond me.

  34. Some years ago I pre-boarded a JetBlue flight as a courtesy because I was was a pilot with another major carrier. I sat in the middle of the cabin and was in a good position to watch the boarding process. Hands down it was the most efficient and fastest boarding I’ve ever seen are any of the airlines I’ve flown with over the 34 years I was a commercial airline pilot. They boarded back to front. They had flight attendant strategically placed throughout the cabin and when somebody would stop to put their luggage up in the overhead a flight attendant would ask what their seat assignment was. As soon as the flight attendant found out that their seat assignment was all the way in the back and they were putting their luggage in the front they were told to take their luggage back to their seat. I have seen no other boarding model as quick and efficient as this.

  35. On Air Force 1 the most important person always boards last. And that’s the way it is in most business air flights.

  36. I like the comments about charging for carryon.

    But I think they really need to not allow some to bring two full carry on.

    Also, if everyone had one carry and personal that they place above thier seat. Should be plenty of room for the carry on.


  37. Design seats so it opens and your carry on goes inside it. Only one type of bag is designed to fit in the seat. Any other bag is not allowed and must be checked. Itll save time on using the overhead. Remove the overhead altogether.

  38. Amazing how so many here, 100% actually, feel the AA CEO is delusional and double-talking a very non-scientific process. This CEO is exactly what our airlines do not need. Their sense of service and commitment to customer satisfaction has become nothing more than wordplay. I am bashing SWA lately directly through rheir Dallas hearts for their wordplay justifying opening new routes (being abandoned by other airlines for their limited profitability) while they’re crushing their loyal loyal customer base, by abandoning long held profitable routes they say are not profitable anymore, that are full virtually 100% of the time!!! Their justification actually contradicts what they’re saying, while they’re saying it! This CEO did the same in his quoted reasoning. A sure cure is returning to nobody gets past the gate with an obviously oversized piece of carryon. Nobody gets to add more than one bag/person into the overhead. Nobody is allowed to bring more than one carryon/personal bag per person past the gate with the exception of assisting children or health/age compromised individuals. It is super simple. What isn’t simple is getting our employees of today to actually do their job in toto. The airlines should be hiring and staffing a division of retirees who fly singularly and assess the entire process of boarding/unboarding/customer service by randomly flying all routes as a “secret passenger”, something akin to the Flight Marshal program. It would begin to clean up the messes created by their own employees. All previous comments are spot on about this CEO. I wonder if he has any idea, that we have no idea, how he became a CEO of an Airline.

  39. This has me thinking back to airline travel of many years ago. Carry-on baggage was very generally lmited because checking a bag wasn’t very expensive. You brought just enough essentials to accommodate you for a day just in case the airline misplaced your luggage and your bag wouldn’t be delivered until the following day. No one brought on laptops to work or entertain themselves. Blankets, pillows and magazines were routinely handed out. Often row seating in the rear of overseas flights was open and you could actually stretch out for a good sleep when traveling coast to coast and overseas. Meals were actually served hot, glasses were actually glass, dinnerware was actually metal.

    Today’s travel is tiresome, crowded and my fellow passengers are more self-centered and rude. Travel used to be special and not a very commonplace experience to everyone. I know that this may sound elitist, but I miss it being more of something special.

  40. I think back to front is way quicker loading and unloading. How many times do you see someone having to find overhead space go 5 rows behind them to find room and then further delay the process of unloading as well. Never understood why people want to be first on the plane only to have 80-100 more people bump you as they struggle to get to the back of the plane.

  41. My suggestion for order of boarding: 1) board people with NO CARRY ONS first…starting with back rows. These people travel light, with personal item (purses, backpacks, briefcases that fit under their seats). I travel like this… we sit down immediately. 2) People with carry ons, back to front, so they dont clog up the aisles in the front as people try to move past them. UNLOAD: People with NO carry ons in bins exit front rows first. Then people with stuff in bins exit same… front rows first. Bottom line: people with no carry ons to put in bins get on and off planes fast and should enter and exit first.

  42. If airlines were more efficient at not losing passengers’ luggage, I would feel more comfortable checking mine. So instead I depend on overhead and a personal item under the seat, and I make sure carryons meet airline restrictions.

  43. Please add me to the list of those that want overhead abuses to be stopped. It’s unfortunate that self-restraint is not used by too many passengers which causes the problem.

    First of all, actively enforce the size restrictions. These out of compliance should have their bags checked no, ifs, and or buts, with only essential medical equipment/medicine permitted for that passenger to enter the cabin.

    Additionally, the economic incentives, such as carry-on fees should be added, also with size restrictions in place and enforced.

    One other area to help I this would be for the crew to lead be example as my wife and I have observed that the crews will oftentimes fill up overhead space, usually toward the back with their own luggage, and without regard to size limits.

  44. What that exec said is total B.S.
    Its his political attitude that gets in the way of public safety. They also can justify it by Americans understanding capitalism calls for them to offer boarding to people that will pay to board first.

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