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Unpopular Opinion: Boarding a Plane First Is Actually Bad

Airports + Flying
by Eben Diskin Mar 16, 2022

This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.

“Now boarding Oneworld Elite and Gold Star Alliance members, Triple Sparkling Sapphire holders, Sixty-Seven Karat Diamond executives, and anyone else who’s paid us a lot of money to sit on the plane for an extra 45 minutes.”

When they do the priority boarding call at the gate, that’s what I hear. There are a myriad of ways to get on a plane before everyone else. Maybe you’re an airline loyalty member. Maybe you’re flying first or business class. Maybe you’re a veteran or traveling with children. Or maybe you don’t qualify for early boarding at all, but you’re one of those people who crowd the gate 40 minutes early to beat your fellow economy passengers onboard. To all those people, I ask one question: Why?

Airlines tout early boarding as a privilege, a mark of exclusivity, and for some inconceivable reason, we fall for it. We join loyalty programs just so we can sit on the plane longer than everyone else. We get to the gate an hour before we need to as if someone might actually steal our pre-assigned seat. Why? Barring a disability that necessitates extra boarding time, boarding a plane early is completely pointless. Here’s why.

Sitting on the plane longer

Plane journeys always feel about two hours too long – even short hauls that only last a half-hour. That’s largely because we sit on a plane much longer than we’re actually in the air. We board, wait for everyone else to find their seats (and witness the inevitable “excuse me, sir, I think you’re in my seat” scene), learn how to buckle a seatbelt for the 1000th time, and begin the painstakingly slow taxi process, before finally taking off. Once we’ve arrived, there’s yet another taxi, followed by the row-by-row emptying of passengers in front of you, none of whom seem to grasp the urgency of the moment. The point is: we spend a lot of time sitting on planes. Why add to it?

Boarding early essentially means abandoning the relative freedom of the airport – where you can stand up, sit down, move around, get food and drinks – for an extra 20-30 minutes of airplane confinement. The whole practice smacks of “hurry up and wait,” like waiting in line for a prison cell. You’re all going to end up in the same communal clink anyway, so you might as well shave off a few minutes where you can.

The rush to board becomes even more of a head-scratcher when you factor airport lounges into the equation. Sure, you can make the argument that airport terminals aren’t the most comfortable place to hang out, but if you have lounge access, there’s really no excuse to board that plane earlier than absolutely necessary. You’ve got unlimited food and drinks at your fingertips, a comfy chair, and faster WiFi. If you don’t have a lounge pass and are starting to question your early boarding routine – now’s the time to get one at a discount.

Sure, there’s the risk that you won’t be able to put your rollaway carry-on in the overhead bin, but anyone who prefers to always check their bag is in the clear. And gate-checking your bag or having it checked to your final destination for free is already par for the course for anyone who has been even remotely close to the end of a boarding line.

Gate lice

Most of us don’t actually get priority boarding. We don’t fit the special criteria for a loyalty program, and therefore don’t even have the option to board early. That doesn’t stop us from crowding the gate anyway, in a phenomenon not-so-affectionately known as “gate lice.”

You know when you first find your gate, there’s still a solid 30 minutes before they start boarding economy, and yet two dozen people are standing around the desk like paparazzi waiting for Justin Bieber to emerge? Those are gate lice. Don’t be one of them.

There’s a whole psychology behind crowding boarding gates, but at its essence – airports are very “next step” oriented, from checking bags to clearing security and finding your gate. We’re always eager to make it to the next step, and psychologically, boarding the plane represents the psychology behind crowding the airport gate’s “final level” of the game. Since everything else in the airport seems to operate at a frenetic pace, we feel the urge to hurry this final step along too, impatiently crowding around the gate agent as though it will make them board us faster. Well, that’s obviously not how it works. Aside from being pointless and looking a bit silly, gate lice are actually getting in the way of airline crews trying to do their jobs, too.

“People are understandably anxious to board,” says flight attendant Betty Thesky, “so they all congregate around the gate. This makes the gate agent’s job tougher, though, because there’s a wall in front of the gate.”

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