To board, or not to board?- that is the question…

Today’s article is by reader Duncan and opens up an interesting debate about boarding and groups etc. Duncan is a frequent traveller with BA Gold status.

Have a read and see what you think. Are you someone who likes to board early or would you prefer to saunter up at the last minute after relaxing in the lounge? Are airlines getting boarding right? Let us know in the comments below or on social media.

One of the advantages of flying in a premium cabin, or being a high tier card holder, is the ability to be amongst the first to be invited to board an aircraft. Or is it?

Over the last few years, airlines have conditioned us to start queuing in various lines depending on our boarding priority – sometimes even before the aircraft we’re travelling on has arrived at the gate! It started with low-cost carriers when a prime spot in the queue guaranteed a prime seat or just a seat with travelling companions. It has also resulted in a reduction of seating in some gate areas where queuing systems seem to have taken over.

I, too, was enticed into the honey trap of boarding the aircraft first in order to find space for my baggage and relax in the comfort of my premium seat, sipping something chilled, until I realised that on numerous occasions I was finding myself standing on a jet-bridge behind a line of pre-boarded customers waiting for the aircraft to be catered/cleaned/security checked/crew to turn up!!!

On one such occasion, I found myself waiting to board behind a number of pre-boarded elderly passengers who should never have been left standing for the time we waited to board! In front of me was also a mum with a buggy the size of a Mini Cooper who was having difficulty understanding why it couldn’t be taken on board. As the crew, who it turned out had only been given access to the plane as we walked down the corridor, were busy with the elderly customers I ended up helping the flustered mum to her seat. Now trapped at the rear of the aircraft, I had to wait for boarding to finish before I could make it back to my seat towards the front.

One interesting snippet of information I garnered from the crew member I chatted to whilst waiting to return to my seat, after popping into the tiny NEO loo myself, was, that as people spent so much time queuing at the gate, and during the boarding process, they don’t utilise the toilets in the terminals. As a result, when the seatbelt sign goes off in the air there’s a rush – and a queue – for the ones onboard, impacting on their ability to get any service started.

Although I knew my mother would have been proud of me for helping out that day, and that it was what any decent person would have done, I vowed to never being duped into ‘boarding’ under false pretences ever again.

Although I’m a light traveller, it’s understandable that some are concerned there will not be enough space for their hand baggage. When travelling long haul I don’t find this an issue. In Europe, where stowing baggage can be problematic, I don’t normally download my boarding card till I get to the airport. That way I can usually ‘view or change seats’, see how busy the flight is at that point (from the number of available seats to change to) and make a decision if it’s necessary to get on quickly.

Some people don’t like the big European business class cabins on aircraft with movable dividers, but the bigger the business class cabin, the fewer passengers overall, meaning more space for bags. When there are two of us travelling business within Europe, unless we’re in the front row, we use the space under the empty middle seat for one of our bags. When I’m alone I find I’m one of the few who bother to use this under-utilised space.

Being one of the first on board when travelling in a long haul business cabin isn’t always as great as it might be either. Even if you can walk straight on to the plane and one’s favourite bubbles are poured and ready, if the rest of the aircraft has to board through the cabin you’re sitting in, not only are you going to have to deal with that, but I notice the crew struggle against the tide to get you those bubbles! Not the scene the marketing folk envisioned. And, as with any service industry, if the people looking after you are rushed and under pressure, it impacts on the overall experience, often through no fault of the individuals concerned.

Pre-departure drinks

Now when I arrive at the gate I start to look for clues before thinking about joining any line: Is the aircraft actually at the gate?!; Is there a vehicle belonging to the cleaning company still by the aircraft? If so, the plane’s not ready!; Is there a catering truck still unloading/loading? No point Michele boarding if there are no champagne flutes on board, let alone champagne corks popped!; How many jet-bridges are being used and does my status or travel cabin allow me to use the one with the shortest queue?; If boarding has already commenced, and it’s possible to see, are people actually boarding the aircraft or just standing?

A bus to the aircraft? I just have to accept that I can’t beat the system but do tend to avoid the first bus.

One word of caution though; don’t fall foul of airlines and handling agents own internal procedures! A colleague of mine was nearly taken off a flight last summer. They had been sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of the gate as they could see the other passengers on their flight waiting on the air-bridge – one of the air-bridges with glass on both sides that are great for plane spotting! A call was put out for the last three to board.

When the gate staff were challenged about forcing people to stand in a greenhouse when the airline’s app was showing a delay they were told that, as their own system was showing the flight departing on time, they had to start and close boarding ‘on time’ otherwise they wouldn’t make their targets! So the last three were told that they had to join the queue if they wanted to travel as the gate door was about to be closed.

The irony of the whole farce was that the flight was further delayed as a passenger collapsed in the hothouse and they and their baggage had to be taken off the flight. The plane’s next flight was then showing as being delayed because of a passenger taking unwell on a previous flight when, in reality, the team involved in that departure – who no doubt were praised for achieving their targets – should have been held accountable and hauled across the coals for the appalling way they treated people!

I’m all for being on time and know there are many factors that can cause delays. However, if airlines are to deliver the service they promise their lucrative premium traffic – even if some of us are turning left for less – and genuinely show that they care for the elderly and young passengers that they currently leave standing in corridors, they need to come up with a pragmatic solution that meets their needs and the needs of their customers. Perhaps a new phase of boarding could be introduced where it’s clear to passengers that they’re not actually getting on the aircraft. e.g. ‘Pre-Boarding to Aircraft Side’ or ‘Boarding to Aircraft Side’?

With this information available the customer can then make their own decision on whether to join that queue, or wait until passengers are actually walking through the door of the plane where the gate signs and announcements would change to ‘Boarding’ where, to coin a phrase, Boarding means Boarding!

16 Comments on "To board, or not to board?- that is the question…"

  1. Hi Michele

    I just wanted to say that I found that this comment piece to be a pleasant change from your usual reviews and news roundups.

    ‘Gate Lice’ are a massive annoyance. If you aren’t already, check out @passengershaming on instagram and Twitter. They oust the gate lice regularly.



  2. Very interesting article, I have never given this much thought until now as a BA gold holder I do find boarding planes outside and something inside the UK a mix bag. My last trip from Heathrow saw me battling with other non status personnel to board. I much rather stroll on to aircraft ready for thanks off.

  3. Hi Duncan, all very good points, but I am an early Boarder. I usually have 2 carry-on bags, and getting overhead bin space is critical for me. In the past I have waited in the comfort of the lounge, only to find myself literally running to Gate 99 to be the last to board and find the overhead bins completely full, the jacket locker full, and had to have my carry-on bags ‘gate checked’ in to the hold, after I’ve taken out fragile and valuable items. For this reason I always have a Tesco Bag For Life in my carry-on just in case it happens again. I missed by longhaul BA flight to Denver because I stayed ‘too long’ in the lounge and it departed from Terminal 5C and was a bus to remote stand boarding! Even though I arrived at the Gate 40 Minutes before departure the last bus had gone, and BA refused to get another bus to allow me, plus others to board. On a flight to Europe the airbridge was already being moved back from the closed aircraft door, the staff banged on the door until the crew opened it, and I had to ‘jump’ across the gap to get onboard. After these ‘late to the Gate’ experiences, I now depart the Lounge early and wait at the Gate to be in Group 1. I’ve also endured several very long waits on the airbridge because the aircraft wasn’t ready to board, but I’d rather be able to stow my carry-on’s than fly with them under my feet, or in the hold.

  4. Good article. Pertinent points. So many variables that it takes a smart keen eyed regular traveller to avoid the inevitable chaos of the BA boarding process. I too am tired of being called to boarding and held in lines, like livestock, airbridges etc. Often the left hand doesn’t know what what the right hand is doing. Being BAEC GOLD is no guarantee of being treated any more helpfully. An overhaul of their boarding procedures is long overdue.

  5. Perhaps we should board based on how long it takes to get seated – I do think that boarding shouldn’t start until you can actually get on the plane – perhaps bridge queue time should be a boarding KPI?

    Then group 1 should be made up of people without anything to go overhead sitting in a window seat, followed by middle seats, people with hand luggage to go over head could only sit in middle or outside seats and board next starting from the back. Then everyone should be able to board and go straight into their seat without delay (I know that this isn’t possible due to the amount of variables but it could be good to start thinking differently!

    Another way to speed it up could be to get rid of priority boarding, it is obviously quicker to board the rear passengers first as they can be sorting themselves out whilst other passengers are boarding, but giving priority boarding to someone sitting a quarter of the way up who then blocks the entire plane whilst putting up his bags just makes it harder for everyone, maybe we should reverse the boarding groups after all we already have lounges to wait in whilst group 5 have been sat at the gate for 2 hours, is it any wonder they start queuing early.

  6. Bails from Oz | 29 April 2019 at 8:58 am | Reply

    I wonder whether there is any way to bet the system when so often boarding means arriving at a taped entrance and told to wait in the airbridge for an indefinite time. At least if you are in the first 10 or so boarding as premium or status blessed, you will get onboard earlier than the rest that are standing 100 or so back in the queue.

    Until airline’s and their airport employees that push us through to meet their targets are held accountable, and the KPIs are corrected this will continue to be a blight in inefficient airports.

    BTW, this is very rarely encountered in HKG, SIN or TYO. So it can be fixed with employees that care and management that will hold wilfully bad service to account.

  7. Malcolm Jones | 29 April 2019 at 9:17 am | Reply

    Personally I prefer to board towards the end especially the longer the flight. However I did have the experience that when I boarded the plane someone on standby had been given my seat to Philadephia.

  8. I also now get to the gate very early when working in the Schengen Area, because twice I have left the lounge on time and still missed my flight due to extensive immigration queues. BA are not very sympathetic either, hence losing your money on a club ticket is a hard pill to swallow.

  9. Graham Walsh | 29 April 2019 at 9:37 am | Reply

    What I’ve noticed recently is the sheer amount of Gold Card holders Feels like half the queue is Group 1. I’m usually Group 2/3 and a lot less busy. I’m usually the one who sees Gate Closing signs in the lounge as I’m working and a sprint to the gate. Never had near a miss like Michele 🙂

    I hate queing and they way they board I understand studies were done if they board the back rows first and then to the front. It must be quicker.

    Ultimately no one cares on the group / class you are in, they just want you off the gate so they can move to their next flight.

    The other issue with boarding is that everyone congregates around the gate so when you are Group 1-3 you actually can’t get through. I was at AMS one day and there was one guy shouting Group 1 out of the way, coming through. It was embarrassing but it was the only way anyone could get to the gate.

  10. A practice I’ve noticed slowly creeping in is economy passengers planting their carry on in the business class bin before proceeding to their seat.

  11. What a terrible first world problem to have to face!

  12. The type of plane combined with specific airport is worth considering too.Yesterday we flew F from Dubai to LHR on the A380. We left the lounge when instructed and when we got to the gate it was bedlam. The departure lounge is just not large enough for the number of passengers on this aircraft. We stood outside the lounge until they finally called group 1.
    They then boarded the whole lower deck through door 1, which was difficult for the F crew, as noted above. It would seem that the BA metal is a second class visitor to this airport.

  13. @Adam “group 1 should be made up of people without anything to go overhead sitting in a window seat, followed by middle seats, people with hand luggage to go over head could only sit in middle or outside seats and board next starting from the back. Then everyone should be able to board and go straight into their seat without delay ”

    Swissair tried to do just that system of boarding many years ago. It was as brilliant as you said. But they have to give it up due to passenger resistance. People wanted to board together when they were in seats beside each other, they resisted, and it all got to be a mess.

  14. Well said Michelle.

    I’m sick and tired of hearing the announcement “your plane is ready for boarding” when I can see clearly through the window it’s not even arrived yet.

    If ground staff targets are such that elderly people, the weak and young ones are being put through this hellhole (and I regularly sit on the floor in the airbridge while waiting and carry a mini-seat to do so otherwise I would faint especially in the heat) then regulators need to limit the time passengers can be left standing after boarding has been started.

    After all, the Americans have finally limited tarmac delays to 3 hours (although that’s too much) so why not limit airbridge delays to something that is reasonable for, you know, actual people. Also should make it illegal not to achieve boarding within, say , maximum 15 mins after boarding called for anyone in a wheelchair, under 10 or with any impairment.

  15. ClaytonTheCruton | 30 April 2019 at 1:46 am | Reply


  16. ClaytonTheCruton | 30 April 2019 at 1:48 am | Reply

    Ten minutes queueing in the air bridge or another glass of bubbles. I always ask the lounge staff journey time to gate when I first arrive at the lounge.

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