Seating Methodologies

Every once-in-a-while someone looks at seating simulations to determine the fastest way to board a plane.

As a frequent flyer I like to board early, not just to stow my bag, but also because I’m usually in a window and if I get in first then I don’t have to get up.  Of course zone seating only works as well as people understand it.  Many of the legacies including United, Delta, US Airways, and even AirTran use a system of zone numbers to obfuscate the order they like to board the plane.  Other airlines like the old Northwest and Continental would either call just general boarding or would say X row or higher.  In their mergers to Delta and United respectively the zone boarding seems to be winning.

Among LCCs Southwest has open seating, but a very defined boarding order.  Airtran, on the other hand, follows the legacy model and boards with zones.  I believe with the merger Airtran will adopt Southwest’s open seating procedure.

Zones come down to zone enforcement.  If people in zone 7 try to board when zone 1 is called and the gate agent allows it, then what is the point of zones?  Also, many people aren’t present when boarding begins due to connections and such so people from lower zones inevitably have to board during higher zones.

Maybe all of that is factored into the simulations, but the simulation of the week says this is the fastest way to arrange boarding:

However, an approach called the Steffen method, alternating rows in the window-middle-aisle strategy, nearly doubles boarding speed.


He suggested boarding in alternate rows, window seats first, progressing from the rear forward: seats 12A, for example, followed by 10A, 8A and so on, then returning for 9A, 7A, 5A and so on, and then filling the middle and aisle seats in the same way.

Pretty much all of the simulations say that as a window person I should board earlier, but depending on what row I’m in I may not be in the first batch of windows.