Outrage: How to Board a Plane

I am on a plane at least 30 times each year for work. Lately, it’s been twice a week. On average, this is true for the last seven years. Or, very nearly, my entire adult life. I think this qualifies me as a VERY FREQUENT TRAVELER. As such, I have some advice I’d like to impart. I try to impart these best practices every single time I board a plane. In fact, I oftentimes find myself sharing this wisdom with seatmates. I say things like, “You know, I think if everyone does their part to demonstrate good boarding practices… it has to pay off!” Or sometimes, “Boarding karma – one day it will come back to me!”

If you’re boarding a plane like this, none of this advice applies. (McCarthy, Alaska, August 2018)

So far, it hasn’t come back to me. So I’m taking it to the internet.

There are some very simple things you can do to expedite the boarding process and not drive everyone around you up the very short plane walls.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Do you have a number on your boarding pass? Above that number does it say, “Boarding Group?” Does that number align with the number on the board above your gate? If so, you’ve won! Get in the queue and get on the plane. Does it not? Does the board say “boarding group 4” (with the “4” in BIG font, so even those across the terminal can see it), but you’re holding a boarding pass that says “boarding group 9?” If yes, sit yourself down.

The plane has room for everyone. Seriously. That’s why the airline issues you a ticket. They sell the same number of tickets as they have seats (some exceptions aside, but if they’re in an oversold situation you’ll know it by the incessant overhead announcements and the extreme look of duress on the gate agents’ faces). They divide those tickets into boarding groups, so that there isn’t a trampling situation upon boarding. There is logic, research, and literally millions of dollars of consulting work built into this boarding plan. I promise, it is more evidence-based than your travel anxiety.

But I just can’t help myself! I must stand up when they start boarding all Concierge Key and Active Duty Military Members. I must!

Okay, if you must, go ahead and stand up. Stand off to the side. Find yourself a column or a trash can and use that as a natural guide to suggest where it’s best to impede traffic, if you must. Do not, please, dear God, do not just stand up, walk to the queue, take a half step from the back of the line, and stand there, waiting for your boarding group to be called. If you are within two feet of the end of the line, people will assume you are in the line. This is reasonable. This is how lines work. You, my dear sir, are the jerk for gumming up the line – not I, the person who asks you politely, “Are you in line?”

I’ll skip the step about having your boarding pass ready. I’ve actually noticed that fewer and fewer people don’t have their boarding passes ready to scan immediately, thanks in large part to the profusion of improving airline apps for smart phones. Or perhaps because passengers just have way too much time waiting on the line because random people gummed up the works rather than following the group number system.

You’re on the plane! You think you can relax, slow down, you’ve made it this far. NO! Do not relax yet! There are at least 10,000 things that can go wrong between stepping foot inside the cabin and buckling your seat belt. Try to avoid them.

On-time departures only happen when every passenger does their best. Just like every vote counts in a democracy, every passenger’s cooperation counts in getting the plane off the ground. Take your responsibility seriously.

Have a bag to store overhead? Put the bag in front of you and push it, don’t drag it. This minimizes the likelihood of an awkward, pause-trip-the-guy-behind-you-both-stumble-have-to-turn-around-lift-bag-not-only-overhead-but-also-180-degrees-around-your-body situation.

When you’ve identified overhead space proximate to your seat, promptly put your bag inside the space. Then sit down. Do not place your luggage in the overhead space, then remove your purse and stow it neatly on top, then remove your coat and squeeze that in as well. Sit down. There will be plenty of time for those refinements after people have boarded around you – so long as there is room for those additional luxuries. Your coat really, truly doesn’t need, deserve, or pay for overhead storage (unless, of course, you didn’t pack a carry-on. If your purse and coat are all you’ve got, by God you deserve the chance to put it anywhere you please).

If you’ve fit your stuff overhead and there’s still even one inch of space surrounding it, leave the door open. Closing the bin door stops nobody from trying to stow their things in that bin, it just slows them down. This is not a fun game of “Guess Who,” it’s a plane. Let the flight attendants close the bin doors when they’ve determined it’s full.

Ready to sit down? Sit! Immedaitely! Do not pause, do not stretch, do not look confused. Sit in your seat and let other people move past you. What, you want to keep stretching? Okay. If you must, step into your row and stretch there. Just get out of the 18-inch wide aisle and give people space to get past.

What, you know your colleague has the window seat next to you, but he’s a few passengers back in the line? Well, unfortunately, you need to move into the row and let people pass you before he arrives at your row. When he does, then you can step out. Looking at him confused-like, telling passengers, “He’s getting in this seat soon” doesn’t work. Even a smile doesn’t mitigate how much this infuriates all of your flight-mates.

Ah. Now we’re seated. Is the seat next to you both nearer the window than yours and occupied? If so, relax. Pull out your reading material, prepare for the flight. If it’s not both of those, hold up. Don’t get too cozy before the window-seat or middle-seat passenger arrives, lest you have to unbuckle and untangle your headphones to let them into their seat.

Is everyone in your row? Excellent. Now, now you can relax.

But maybe first just smile or nod at the person next to you. I know eye contact is scary these days, but you’re going to be crammed together in a flying tin can in the sky – the least you can do is say a quick hello. It will make you feel good, I promise.


Alicia Amling View All →

Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.

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