It should be maddeningly simple, but the process of seating passengers on an aircraft has long been a point of frustration for travellers and airlines alike, despite industry efforts to make it more painless.

Most airlines use a system called the rear-to-front method to seat passengers on commercial flights, with modifications to allow first-class passengers on board first. Once first-class and VIP passengers have been seated, the rest of the plane is filled up by zone, working from the back to the front.

However, many engineers have condemned the system as inefficient, as it creates bottleneck points on the plane where passengers are all trying to stow their luggage in the same areas.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing says the passenger boarding process takes longer than any other preparation for takeoff. Boarding times have slowed by more than 50 per cent since 1970, due to increased carry-on luggage, demographics, according to the company's website. 

Boeing says the average boarding time is nine passengers per minute, or 26 minutes for a 240-passenger plane.

That's a number many airlines have been trying to bring down, but most systems are complicated by elements such as priority, first-class, VIP and frequent-flyer passengers.

Some airlines have tried breaking passengers up into more zones, or spreading out the waiting lines at the airport gate, but those methods have done little to cut boarding times.

But some engineering-savvy individuals argue there are better ways to fill up an aircraft, which could save valuable time and money for airlines and passengers alike.

Halifax-based passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs says he'd love to see a better system put in place, but he believes airlines are too entrenched in current thinking to try anything drastically new.

"Whatever airlines are doing right now makes no sense," Lukacs told by phone. He added that he agrees with one popular study of aircraft boarding times, which labels the current approach the second-worst option available.

Here are some proposed solutions to the problem that could shave a few minutes off your boarding time in the future, if they are ever implemented.

Outside-in (WilMA)

The outside-in, or "WilMA" system is designed to reduce the likelihood that passengers will have to clamber over one another to reach their seats on the plane. "WilMA" stands for Window, Middle, Aisle – the order in which passengers are called to their seats, so each row is seated in the most efficient order possible.

According to Seat Guru, some United Airlines flights start the boarding process with first-class passengers first, followed by window seats, middle seats and aisle seats.

However, this approach can be complicated by human factors, such as families that want to stay together during the boarding process. That means a family of four (two adults, two kids) can throw the whole system out of whack.

Steffen Method

The so-called "Steffen Method," devised by American physicist Jason Steffen, offers one of the fastest-possible boarding solutions, from a purely mathematical standpoint.

Under the Steffen Method, passengers are seated in columns running from the rear to the front of the plane, all at once. All passengers are seated along the bulkheads first, then in the middle seats, then in the aisle seats, regardless of which class they are flying.

Steffen designed the system to allow for the maximum amount of space for each passenger to stow luggage, without having to compete with clusters of people around them.

The method is demonstrated in the video below.

"The logic makes perfect sense," Lukacs said. However, he suggested airlines are unlikely to ever embrace the Steffen Method, because it would eliminate their opportunity to charge extra for first-class boarding.

Lukacs also criticized the Steffen Method for eliminating the human element of air travel, by failing to make room for passengers to board with their travel companions.

'Flying Carpet'

A solution out of Australia proposes lining passengers up in small groups before allowing them to board, so that they’re already arranged in their proper seating order.

The proposed "Flying Carpet" solution requires groups of 20-30 passengers to find their seats on a floor map before boarding. Passengers seated toward the back of the plane are arranged closer to the front of the floor map, so everyone gets on the plane in the order in which they are seated.

Lukacs called the Flying Carpet the "poor man's implementation" of the Steffen Method. However, he also praised it for incorporating the human element of air travel, by allowing groups of travellers to stay together.

The makers of the Flying Carpet say it takes only 30-45 seconds for each group of passengers to find their seats and advance onto the plane. After boarding the plane, passengers have an easier time stowing their luggage, because they do not need to squeeze past one another to reach their assigned seats.

Flying Carpet says the process can reduce boarding times by up to 50 per cent, and can easily be worked into existing boarding practices to accommodate priority boarding and different zones.

The Flying Carpet website includes several videos explaining the process. One video shows what Flying Carpet calls a "real-world trial" of the carpet, involving 171 passengers with no prior knowledge of the system. Flying Carpet says they quickly learned the system with the help of airport staff, and completed the boarding process in 13 minutes – or 10 minutes faster than the rear-to-front system would take.

Vlad Kolesnik, a researcher at the St. Petersburg State University of Civil Aviation, helped Flying Carpet stage several trials in Russia last year. Kolesnik says the Flying Carpet method proved more effective than any other approach.

"If the system became well-known and the passengers knew what to do well in advance, it would be much better, probably less than 10 minutes for 180 passengers," he says in the Flying Carpet video.

The company says the tactic can save airlines at least US$40 per minute during the boarding process.

"I would love to see the Flying Carpet being implemented, or some variant of it," Lukacs said, adding that he believes it would result in "significant improvements" for aircraft loading times.

Rotating Zone

The rotating zone system alternates between seating zones at the front and rear of the aircraft, until the groups meet in the middle. The low-cost airline AirTran Airways, which ceased operations in 2014, used to employ this system on its aircraft.


This one is easy: every man, woman and child for himself. Passengers are seated on a first-come, first-served basis, often with no first-class option. This strategy is more common among low-cost carriers using smaller aircraft.

Some airlines, such as Southwest, will group passengers by boarding numbers and sections.

The double-door approach

Lukacs says if airlines were really concerned about reducing boarding times, they'd find a way to use both the front and rear doors on an aircraft, so passengers could enter from both ends at the same time.

"If speed was a real concern, I would say that actually using both doors would also be a factor that could be used to speed up the boarding process," he said. He added that although it makes mathematical sense, he does not believe airlines will change their ways to shave a few minutes and dollars off boarding times.

However, Lukacs believes there will be no significant changes in passenger boarding because of entrenched mindsets. "The people who make those decisions have MBAs, and are not engineers," he said.