It might be the single most inexplicable human behavior while flying. A gate agent announces that a flight’s about to board, and every single person rushes the gate like the last person onboard gets eaten by a hyena — no matter that they have reserved seats, and that those seats are considerably less comfortable than the ones in the airport boarding lounge. The masses are getting on that plane as early as humanly possible, common sense and logic be damned.
But why? Is it a general dislike of airport terminals? Are passengers afraid somehow that if they are not in line right when their group is called, they’ll miss their flight? Do they just enjoy standing in lines like everyone who eats cronuts? We talked to a travel expert and a behavioral psychologist, and they offered some thoughts as to why the hell people crowd airport gates.
People are afraid someone else will gain an advantage.
Despite the obvious fact that everyone will be arriving at the same time, downing the same Diet Coke and Biscoff cookies, people inherently feel that if they get on board first, they’re getting some kind of advantage.
“Some people are suspicious of other people, and if they don’t get there, and get what’s theirs, they might lose it,” says Dr. Greg Smith, who holds a Ph.D. in Behavioral Psychology. “So they inherently feel like they’ve lost or gotten cheated, or there’ll be some issue if they’re not first on.”
Some of it reflects the value Americans put on being first, too.
“Our society trains us first is best,” says Anthony Berklich, a travel consultant and founder of travel blog Inspired Citizen. “So if you’re able to get on first, you’ll have better access to something, whether its overhead space, or armrests, or a seat. You can monopolize something in that very small space.”
Pack mentality still rules.
Much like at the grocery store, where you’ll see a check stand with 15 people in line when the one next to it is empty, people have an inherent tendency to follow the crowd, even if it defies all logic.
“People look to their peers to see what to do,” says Berklich. “So if the gate agent calls boarding group one, and everyone gets up and rushes to the front, and people see that, they’ll all do it too whether they’re frequent or novice travelers.”
Fear of no bin space
The most common excuse people give — including Berklich — for crowding the gate is fear that the plane will run out of overhead bin space. And they’ll have to — gasp — check their bags. Airlines, for their part, generally warn passengers in the boarding lounge that a flight is full, then offer to gate check bags for free. But most passengers toting roller bags bigger than their torsos don’t think this applies to them. Then they crowd the gate, so nobody else can stow their hockey equipment bags in the overhead bin before they get there.
“Some people need to have their stuff in the space right above them, so it doesn’t somehow disappear during the flight,” says Dr. Smith. “You get people who travel all the time who say, ‘I’m not gonna be the guy who runs out of space in the overhead and has to check his bag.’ But people do have boarding groups, so in theory that shouldn’t be an issue.”
That is to say, if you hear the dreaded “full flight” announcement, and you’re in boarding group six, odds are you’re checking your bag. So better to check it at the gate early — for free — and just enjoy a drink at the bar sans luggage until final boarding.
Fear of missing out is real, even if what they’re missing out on is a cramped coach seat with no electrical plugs or WiFi. Perhaps in the back of some people’s heads, today is the day they’re giving away free pizza to the first 100 people to board the plane. Either way, for some odd reason, there is a big dose of boarding-gate FOMO when it comes time to get on the plane.
“They see a crowd gathering and think if everyone else is doing it then I should be too,” Dr. Smith says. “They think ‘I don’t know why, but if I don’t do what they’re doing, I might miss out on something big.’” Or, ya know, more announcements about lack of bin space.
They think it’ll speed up the process.
Like obsessive lane-changers who think getting a car length ahead will somehow beat the rush-hour gridlock, people crowding the gate have it in their minds that the faster they get to their seats, the quicker they’ll get off the ground — no matter that once they’re inside the jetway, they can wait up to half an hour to sit down anyway.
“The truth is they’re totally powerless to have any impact, but they’ll do whatever little thing they can to get (boarding) over with,” says Dr. Smith. “It’s almost like superstition for some people; they’re doing something hoping it’ll help and have some positive benefit. But in actuality, it’s not.”