Travel like a pro: How boarding works

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Everyone’s been there. That moment when you’ve printed your boarding pass, made it through security, and have found a coveted seat in the boarding area. It’s a moment when you take a deep breath and prepare for what comes next – boarding.

The first thing to remember is a rule that should apply any time you travel – pack your patience. The front wheels of the aircraft leave the runway about 2 seconds before the rear wheels, meaning that everyone takes off at basically the same time. So there is no need to rush to get on. Remember that everyone’s going to the same place and that being patient will result in a smoother boarding process.

Buddy boardingAlaska’s gate agents will arrive at the gate 60 minutes prior to the scheduled departure if you have questions. Give them a few minutes to get set up and then they’ll be better prepared to help.

“Do I need my ID?” On domestic flights, they won’t need to check your identification again once you’ve gone through security, so you can go ahead and put it away. If you are flying international, you’ll want to have your passport out and ready as the gate agent will check it prior to boarding.

Doors 1-6After you’ve put your identification away, now is not the time to go and get a coffee (unless of course you’re absolutely craving one and have plenty of time to spare)! One of the reasons boarding can feel like it takes forever is because of the amount of available hands. Think of it this way: if you have a coffee, one bag and a purse or briefcase, that’s a lot of stuff for two hands to handle. Plus, you’ll need to get that boarding pass out, or scan your phone as you board. Keeping one hand free will not only help you as you make your way down to the plane, but will also allow you to move freely through the aisles, and avoid any hot coffee on your lap, or worse, someone else’s.

Streamline your boarding process with the Alaska Airlines mobile app: iPhone | Android | Windows Phone

Phone ScanThe last thing to remember when boarding a flight is to relax. Everyone will make it on the airplane. And here’s a tip: most jet bridges do not have air conditioning or heat, so it can get uncomfortable standing there. It’s more comfortable if you relax and remain seated until your boarding group is called.

And, if you’re a list person, here is a quick guide to how Alaska’s boarding process works. Happy travels!

  1. 40 minutes before departure: Agents will make an announcement letting you know it’s time to board. No need to move, this is just information to let you know that it’s time to get ready (i.e. free up your hands).
  2. 35 minutes before departure: Some special groups board first: Members of the military, customers who need special services or additional time to board, and families with children under 2
  3. 30 minutes before departure: Next comes first class customers
  4. 25 minutes before departure: After first class customers are frequent fliers (Alaska’s Mileage Plan members) and those who have purchased Preferred Plus seating
  5. 20 minutes before departure: Finally every else boards in two groups, starting with customers seated behind the exit rows.

Front Boarding HorizonOver the years, Alaska has tested out many different boarding processes and Jeff Butler, Alaska’s vice president of airport operations and customer service says it best. “Boarding is an exciting time for passengers, as this is the gateway to their adventure. We want this process to be seamless, so we’ve tried many different boarding configurations. We’ve tested dual-door boarding; window, middle, aisle; random boarding to name a few. Through these trials, we’ve found that the way we’re doing it now is the best way for us to get you through quickly and efficiently.”

Even though this works for us now, we’re always looking for ways to reduce the stress and anxiety that comes with boarding the aircraft. So, to further our work, you may see us testing new general boarding lanes in Seattle and Portland.

Here’s a run-through of a few ways Alaska has experimented improving the boarding process for customers over the years. Some have worked better than others:

Dual-door boarding:

Customers board simultaneously from the front and back doors of the airplane. The problem? The two waves of passengers collided in the middle, creating a serious traffic jam around row 18. While not a good fit for Alaska’s 737 jets, customers flying regional partner Horizon Air have been boarding this way for years with no problems.

Window, middle, aisle boarding:

Customers board based on their seat assignment. Customers with window seats go first, then customers with middle seats, then customers with aisle seats. The problem? Travelers didn’t always understand their seat assignments, which led to confusion onboard and slowed down the boarding process.

Random boarding:

Groups of customers are randomly selected and assigned to boarding times, theoretically to spread customers around the aircraft. The problem? Total chaos.

Text-to-board:

Customers who opted in received text messages alerting them that it was their turn to board. The problem? The airport is a noisy, bustling environment and customers who never received their text messages or didn’t notice the alert ended up in a traffic jam at the end.

Biometric boarding:

Customers use fingerprints to pass through security checkpoints and board flights instead of juggling paper or mobile boarding passes and IDs. Alaska recently wrapped up a test of biometric boarding in San Jose, California. While the initial test has come to an end, stay tuned as Alaska’s research and development team considers the next steps for biometrics. The problem: Fingerprint boarding isn’t an option for everyone, as about 2 in every 100 people do not have readable fingerprints.

Smart watch boarding:

Customers board using a smart watch app. While Alaska’s debut Apple Watch app did not include boarding passes as a feature, industrious customers saved boarding passes to Apple’s Passbook app to scan at security checkpoints and the boarding gate. The problem? Alaska’s mobile team omitted that feature for one very specific reason: the average adult wrist does not fit inside the “clam shell” scanners the airline uses at the gate. Customers found they had to remove watches entirely to scan them, and it slowed down the boarding lines. But tech aficionados need not worry – Alaska’s airport and mobile teams are looking at alternate solutions that would allow for smart watch boarding passes.

What is your boarding preference?

36 Comments on “Travel like a pro: How boarding works

    • I would like to see the plane boarded from front to back, no exceptions, and making sure that people put their overhead bag IN THE BIN FOR THEIR ROW. I fly first class more often than not, and am usually the first non-military or assisted passenger to board, but not due to impatience. I actually can’t stand getting on the plane when I do, as I am constantly bumped and banged by less seasoned travelers that don’t seem to have much grasp of spatial awareness. However, the price I pay for being on the plane early is nothing compared with being last to board, only to have the only open bin space located in row 14.

      If planes were boarded back to front, attendants would be able to handle placing bags in the overhead compartment, while simultaneously keeping track of the passengers that choose to carry on bags that are far beyond regulated dimensions.

      People just seem to have zero respect or consideration for others when they travel, and employ the same me-first attitude that has become so prevalent in our society. Relax, plan your trip out, be courteous to other travelers and don’t bring it if you don’t need it.

  1. Hi there! Great post – but totally omitted the reason that most folks are so eager to board: storage for that ONE carry-on bag in the overhead compartment. My biggest gripe has always been those folks who will have their bag tagged to be checked, and STILL carry on two bags (purse & briefcase or HUGE dufflebag) which OBVIOUSLY will not BOTH fit under the seat in front of them, and yet they will still board early because they had their THIRD bag tagged!

    I know it’s not possible to monitor every passenger, but if every passenger would simply follow the rules and have ONE overhead bag and ONE underseat bag (or at least ensure that their two smaller bags fit under the seat in front of them), boarding would be a lot less stressful. There’s nothing worse than relaxing through the boarding process only to get on the plane with ONE carryon to be told there’s no room and you’ll have to check your bag. It’s not fair and it’s what drives people to board early – AND stash their bags wherever they can.

    • That’s a great point Marcy, luckily not too long from now we’ll be rolling out our new Space Bins, which feature 48% more bin space for carry-on bags! That should reduce the stress you feel when boarding and make it easier for you to find a place to stow your carrry-on bag. The new bins will hang a foot lower (less of a struggle for people to get their bags in, saving time) and hold up to 117 174 bags! Check it out: https://blog.alaskaair.com/2014/07/10/to-increase-onboard-storage-alaska-airlines-will-be-first-with-new-space-bins-from-boeing/

      • …but if they hang a foot lower, it will be more difficult to stand up and wait until we can exist…or use the restroom…

      • One possibility would be to charge $25 for larger/heavier carry-on bags and make the first bag in the hold free. I loved it when you allowed those of us with only ONE carry-on item to board with the VIPs – please continue, or reinstate if you stopped doing this.

    • I agree 100% I noticed that happening on a LAS to SEA trip recently, people checked their bag at the gate, boarded early with backpacks which they stored in overhead bins.

  2. Last time I thought “oh, no rush, we are all going to the same place” when there was a huge chaotic crowd trying to board, I got bumped off the flight just by being in the back of the line! Hey maybe if you didn’t charge people so much to check bags, they wouldn’t try to pack so much junk into the carry on bags, and it wouldn’t take so long to board..always after the last dollar you can squeeze from us, eh? I’m tired of Alaskans getting the shaft so you can give the fancy stuff to lower 48 flyers and pretend Alaskans love you.

    • Sorry that happened to you Tyler, we’re working on speeding up the boarding process and looking for new ways do make it better everyday.
      Coming up later this year, we’re trying to take that carry on bag issue off the table with our new, larger bins that can hold up to 117 174 bags, 48 percent more than what we can fit onboard today. Hopefully, this will let you board with less stress the next time you fly.
      For more on that:
      https://blog.alaskaair.com/2014/07/10/to-increase-onboard-storage-alaska-airlines-will-be-first-with-new-space-bins-from-boeing/

      • I wish there was some way to discourage people from crowding the entryway to the boarding line. If your row/group/category has not yet been called, GET OUT OF THE WAY! When I am standing in line to board, to find out out that many of the people in front of me are just waiting for their group/row to be called, it is very frustrating! Perhaps some kind of “corral” where rows 22-30 wait, rows 7-21, etc?

      • Good idea Doris! We’re always looking for ways to make your travel experience better and we’re actually testing a system like this now in some of our Sea Tac gates. There’s a boarding section in front of the door for certain groups and rows so if passengers choose to stand, they can do so in their section and be ready to board when the time comes.

  3. I believe carry on luggage is a huge problem. People want to get on first because they want space in the overhead. Their luggage weighs more then they can safely lifet. They put their luggage in the first available space creating problems for those boarding after and find this overhead above them is already full. I only carry 1 purse that I put below my seat my reward should be I get on first after MVP.

    • You’re right Patsy, trying to find space for carry on luggage can slow down the boarding process. In a couple of months, we’ll debut new, larger overhead bins that will accommodate 48 percent more bags. The new overhead bins should make the process a lot faster- they will hang a foot lower (so you don’t have to struggle to lift your bag as high) and they can hold up to 117 174 bags! Check it out:
      https://blog.alaskaair.com/2014/07/10/to-increase-onboard-storage-alaska-airlines-will-be-first-with-new-space-bins-from-boeing/

      • According to the article on the Space Bins, they will hold 174 bags, compared to the 117 they now carry. And I have boarded before using Patsy’s suggestion. I felt it was a great way to honor those without overhead storage, allowing them to get settled in quicker.

    • Yes Patsy, and they put their luggage in the first available space so they do not need to carry it as they progress the isle. I like the suggestion: those boarding without luggage go first (that would not include those of us who leave our luggage on the cart). There will always be cheaters, but…

  4. I think that boarding the plane for a one hour plus flight with box of hot food is rude. First of all, as you pointed out, the possibility of spillage is high as people try to locate their seats. Second, the aroma emitting from these containers are sometimes unpleasant to others. If you can’t eat before or after a flight that takes 1 hour and 15 minutes, then you need to be considerate of your fellow passengers and wait.

  5. Totally agree that folks go overboard with carry on bags! You can monitor them! Appreciate it when you allow us to check a bag at the gate for no chsrge. We all don’t like to pay those extra fees. My suggestion for travelers is to chose your seats and stick with them
    Don’t make the poor desk attendant find you seats “so your entire family of 12” can sit together. You can get up & walk around. Besides, you’ll be spending the next week or so with ALL of them anyway. Enjoy your “alone” time!

  6. It is great news that Alaska is installing larger overhead bins. My husband and I travel with bags that are size compliant but many do not. It would be very helpful if boarding agents would monitor carry-on baggage for size compliance. Items such as guitars can take up a whole bin. Passengers should be charged for oversize carry-on luggage in the same way as folks are charges for oversize checked baggage.

    • Hi Kathy. Our agents do monitor the carry-on numbers and size at the ticket counter, as well as at the boarding gate. If a customer has an item that is too large, or has too many, we tag them for the cargo hold and charge the customer accordingly. As for musical instruments, the Department of Transportation has recently changed their policy. If the instrument can be safely accommodated in the cabin, we must do so and if it can’t, then it will be accommodated in the cargo hold.

  7. I have often wondered if once all the families, military, elites of any airline, and first class have boarded what happens if the groups that board next are reversed, starting with row 6-17 and then rows 18 and up. (to prevent the problem of no overhead space when it is finally your turn to board when seated in rows 7-15. Sound like though, with the new larger overhead bins it might not be an issue any longer

    • Great idea Christine! The majority of those seats are booked and reserved by our elites, who board early. That said, customers are advised to stow their bags in proximity of where they are seated. We are working on addressing this with our employees. In the meantime, our new overhead bins will increase storage available by 48% ,which will alleviate much of the pain and anxiety caused by carry-on bags. Look for those later this fall.

  8. As a retired flight attendant, I usually go last. It’s easy, fast, and it works for me.

  9. How about row 1? There is no space under the seat in front of you and the flight attendants always use the space above you even though the “Posted Placard” says reserved for bulkhead row passengers.

    • Hi Russ. There may be some instances where a Flight Attendant may have their bag in the bin above Row 1. This is for safety, as they are required to have their manuals easily accessible throughout the flight. This does not happen very often, though, as most of the time it is actually another customer’s item. As with the rest of the aircraft, space in the first class cabin is at a premium. Our flight crews are there to help, so please be sure to let them know if they can assist you with finding space for your items. When our new overhead bins are installed, this should help alleviate this issue as there will be much more space for bags in both cabins.

  10. Why not have an overhead bin number which corresponds to seat. This would solve my major stress.

    • Hi Scott. We have tested assigned bin spaces and learned a lot. In this trial, we divided the overhead bins and found that each passenger received space equivalent to two loaves of bread, so clearly there isn’t enough space on the plane for everyone to stow their carry-on bag in an overhead bin. Additionally, since we don’t know who is bringing what, we can’t plan ahead and know which customers will use the bins and which customers won’t. This major stress point will be greatly alleviated with our new overhead bins, as the space increases by 48%.

      • Hillary, this is really a great solution (a bin number which corresponds to our seat number) because if my bin is full, I can ask the FA to remove the bag so I can have my bag accessible to me during the flight and I do not need to seek and grab when someone has taken my space. Your new overhead bins should resolve the problem you mentioned (two loaves of bread space). All are supposed to bring bags that fit in the bin, so the other problem (don’t know who is bringing what) should resolve that also. If I do not use my assigned space, I can leave the bin open and it would be available for a bin pig. Rude people will take the first bin if the bins are not assigned.

  11. I don’t see anyone checking to see if their bag fits in the size limit frame. Many bags are obviously way too large, but they don’t get stopped.

  12. First I want to say that I LOVE flying on Alaska Airlines. I am a MVP customer I usually get to board early in the process. I fly other carriers and quite honestly I am not treated as well and they are not as friendly for the most part as the Alaska Airlines crews. My number one complaint about boarding any plane is the passenger who stands in the aisle and slowing pulls out the newspaper, the iPad and a dozen other items from their carry on – all the while blocking others from moving on to their seats. I hear the flight attendants state “move into your aisle so others can pass” but people just do not get it. I tend to have the three items I may want in one place so that I can quickly put them in my seat and put my back up overhead. If I put my carry on underneath I just wait to get those items once everyone is seated next to me and I am not in the way. My other complaint is when I see people put their small items up top in the bins when we all know that item can fit under the seat. If these smaller items go under the seat then the bigger ones go up top and people can board faster because they do not have to search for bin space.

    • Thank you for flying with us Nancy. You’re spot on when you say that smaller items should go under the seat in front of you and larger items should go into the overhead bin. During pre-boarding our gate agents make several announcements to remind customers of this. Additionally, our flight crews do try to remind people of this as they go through their safety checks and help people find their seats. Our teams on the ground and in the air will continue to work together to find ways to help customers put their items into the right places so that we can get you on your way. Your practice to have your three items in one place is a good one, and we appreciate your help in keeping the boarding process smooth for others.

  13. Why not load by seat number. SW does this and it works well. Utilizing the front and back board areas in seat number order would seem a reasonable solution.

    Also…..I have seen passengers with oversized luggage being allowed to board. There is no way that those long duffle bags, stuffed as full as can be, will ever fit into that little box that sizes the luggage….yet they still get to board.

  14. How about including this important information in the confirmation email? Or in the Alaska area of the airports on large signs? We fly Alaska several times a year and we to have noticed all of the oversize “Carry-on” luggage. Thank you for working on this very frustrating issue, and reminding folks that they really do need two hands to board without mishap.

  15. This may be too radical of a change but what about shrinking the overhead bins to allow only small bags and having a bag service like the Horizon planes where all large bags and rollaways are stored in cargo. This would create a larger more open cabin interior and the boarding and deplaning process will probably be a lot faster. Then the dual boarding process like Horizon will work. Personally, I would rather board last than sit and get bumped by others who are not aware of their spacial pathway. But we all rush to board because of the number one reason – storage claim on that hot commodity overhead space.

    Ok the non-radical option is to allow free luggage again then that would probably alleviate the overhead bin problem as we all know who wants to pay $25 per bag? Wait, free luggage that may be too radical too as it will reduce revenue! 🙂

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