The Real Benefit of Early Airplane Boarding

Boeing’s “perfect world” concept of overheads is seldom matched by the real world reality.

On the face of it, and especially if you’re flying in coach, you’d be crazy to want to get on an airplane any earlier than you absolutely must.  Does anyone like sitting in a coach class seat?  Is there any pleasure in enduring the rest of the boarding process – if you have an aisle seat, you know that people – and their bags – are going to bang into you repeatedly.  Do you like suffering in an airplane cabin that is almost certainly either way too hot or miserably cold?

So why do we all rush to line up and then wait impatiently to get on the plane?  Why do many of us pay airlines for the “privilege” of early boarding?  With the notable exception of Southwest Airline’s open-seating approach to boarding, what is the reason for us to rush so eagerly onto the plane any sooner than we must?

The answer of course is the desirability – or outright need, in many cases – to be able to place our carry-on luggage into the overhead storage bins.  We all know there is never enough of this space, and on the basis of first in, first served, if we’re one of the last on-board, we either have to gate-check our bag – the one we carefully placed all our essential and valuable items into that we couldn’t be without and which the airline won’t insure – or somehow stuff it under the seat in front of us and then work out where to put our feet for some hours.

With modern airplane seat electronics often resulting in a big box of “stuff” filling the space underneath the seat in front, the ability to put normal sized items underneath is no longer guaranteed, either.  I’ve regularly paid extra for an “extra space” seat only to find that while I’ve a couple of inches more legroom, I’ve got no space under the seat in front, and because the extra space seat is near the front, but without early boarding privileges, by the time I get to the seat I paid more for, there’s no space in the overhead bins.

In such cases, it would be better to endure an ordinary seat at the back of the plane, because most airlines fill from the back to the front, meaning earlier boarding and with a pick of any overhead space all the way moving back on the plane, particularly because people with preferred boarding seldom choose to sit in the back.

The Simple Math of Overhead Space

If we consider a regular “narrow body” plane with three seats on either side of a center aisle, we know that each row of seats has access to the overhead space above it.

Most modern planes seem to have a 29″ – 31″ seat pitch, so the 30″ or so of overhead space for that row has to be split three ways.  We each have an allowance of 10 lineal inches of overhead space.  In actual fact, the per person space is even less – there are the dividers between overhead bins that take up space and interfere with efficient loading, and not all the bins are empty to start with.  Some of the bins are filled with items such as emergency equipment and oxygen, or used as storage for blankets and pillows, etc, and other bins may be used by crew to place their bags before any passengers get on board.  So our individual ration is something under 9″.

In addition, the overhead bins aren’t efficiently shaped.  They’re necessarily curved to conform to the outside curvature of the plane’s fuselage, meaning that not all the space inside is actual usable space.  Sometimes carry-on bags need to go in with the long side rather than short side facing out, which means 22″ or more of space is used by one bag (compared to a theoretical “best case” and also ratioed allotment of 9″ or less).

There is no standard size/shape of overhead bins.  If there were, luggage makers could design bags to most efficiently fit.  But not only is every model of plane different, but different cabin fit-out options mean that within the same model plane there might be a dozen variations of overhead bin size.

Talking about bags to fit, there is also no universal standard cabin bag, nor a universal “official allowed size”.  To make matters still worse, not only are carry-on bags seldom/never measured truthfully by their manufacturers (they usually ignore the extra space taken up by external handles and wheels) but the official size limits are seldom/never enforced by the airlines that set them.

The reality is even worse.  People bring more than one item with them, plus outer layers of clothing too.  There’s seldom enough space in the overhead for two people, let alone for three.

So, whatever the actual space, and whatever the actual size of carryons, the only thing we all know for sure is that it is never enough.

More Seats and More Passengers Mean Less Space

Back in the “good old days” (ie up until the late 1990s, perhaps) it was common for airplanes to average 65% or so load factors.  This meant, in round figures, that every row of three seats had only two passengers.  Plus, the seat pitch was more generous – instead of 30″, it might have been 33″ or even more.

So in the recent past, each passenger was averaging 16″ or more of overhead space, but now, they are averaging 9″ or less.  In round figures, the space per passenger has halved.  When you consider also that in those same good old days, checked bags were free and so more people happily checked their bags, and wheeled carry-on bags didn’t even exist.  People brought less into the airplane cabins, and had almost twice as much space per person to store less stuff.

Back then, the overheads were more than sufficient.

Growing Overhead Bins Haven’t Kept Up With Growing Luggage

An early picture of a 737-200 which has only an open hat rack above the seats, no overheads as we know them at all.

Originally, airplanes just had “hat racks” above the seats, designed to hold a hat or coat/jacket, an airline provided pillow or blanket, and maybe a briefcase or hand bag.  No-one ever thought of the space above the seats as being suitable for regular suitcases.

This slowly evolved, and even recently, while the overhead bins have grown enormously, and now come with “safety doors” on them that purport to protect passengers from bags falling out during turbulence in flight (but often fail to do so), the bins would have loading limit stickers inside with ridiculously light load limits that could be exceeded by a single heavy carry-on, let alone a large locker full of them.

A 1978 brochure promoting the A310.

Here’s a brochure illustration from 1978, promoting the A300/310 which offers 1.2 cu ft of overhead space per passenger, or 2.2 cu ft with optional extra center-aisle bins.  Interestingly, it says this (1.2 cu ft) is twice the amount of space in typical narrow-body planes of the time.  You might think they are referring to the 737 when they coyly talk about “narrow-bodies”.  But in 1978 there were almost 50% more DC-9s delivered and in service than 737s.

To put cu ft into meaningful terms, a typical carry-on that claims measurements of 22″x14″x9″ (and which usually are more like 24″x15″x11″ takes up 1.6 – 2.3 cu ft.  Remember also that it is impossible to use every last cubic foot of bin space in a plane, and you can see how the space problem starts to become apparent.

The relevant measure is not cubic feet.  It is lineal feet and how they can be used.  Recognizing this, Boeing released its “space bins” in 2014 which it claims hold 50% more bags than their previous generation of bins, while not really taking up any noticeable amount of extra cabin space.  Airbus have a similar concept, also released in 2014.

This better utilization is claimed because bags can be stored using their short dimension for lineal space, rather than their middle or long dimension.  In theory, a typical bag measures 22″ x 14″ x 9″.  Four bags stored with their 14″ dimension on the side require 56″ of lineal space,  and six bags with their 9″ dimension on the side take up 54″.  An instant increase of 50″, at least in theory.

If this claim is true, then their suggested bag capacity, for example, 178 in a 737-800 or 737 MAX 8, would be close to perfect, because the plane generally has fewer than this number of seats.

But we’ve never, ever, found ourselves on a 737 with neat rows of six carry-ons stacked into the overhead bins like the Boeing promotional pictures.

That’s because almost none of the carry-ons match the ideal perfect size of the one used by Boeing to demonstrate its concept, and even in cases where they are perfect, people are so accustomed to placing them one way into the bins that they seldom think to put them in the other way, and by the time a harassed flight attendant comes along, the bin may have been inefficiently filled and closed and no-one wants to then pull everything out and then put it back in neatly in an optimum manner – especially with the rush to finish boarding and get the plane pushed back on time.

The Other Hassle of Carry-Ons

Our focus thus far has been on the desirability of getting our carried on items into the overheads.  But there’s another issue, too.  It takes an appalling amount of time for everyone to get off a plane at the end of a flight.  This is in large part because of the time some people take pulling their carry-on items out of the overhead bins, maybe needing to “go against the flow” to get a bag stored further down the plane, and then struggling to wheel them down the aisle.

Why The Airlines Create the Problem

One of the most frustrating aspects of finding no space for one’s own carry-on is having seen people board before us with way over the official allowance of carry-on pieces and sizes.  They have filled up the overheads “illegally” leaving no room for our own modest and compliant carry-on.

Why do the airlines allow this?

The airlines benefit by encouraging/allowing us to take as much of our luggage with us, into the passenger cabin.  It gives them more space for commercial freight in the cargo hold, and simplifies their loading/unloading of the plane for each turnaround.  Plus, the inadequacy of the overhead space in the cabin means they can charge people to board earlier and get access to overhead space.  And of course, let’s not also forget that the rates they charge for checked bags can sometimes exceed how much they charge us for our seat – there’s huge money to be made in checking bags.

So the airlines have provided positive and negative incentives – they charge outrageous amounts if we want to check bags, and they provide insufficient overhead space so they can also charge us for what is politely described as priority boarding, but which in reality is priority access to over head space.

And there are a few airlines that also attempt, with varying degrees of success, to charge us for carry-on items too.  Every which way, the airlines win and we lose.

Is Early Boarding Worth Paying For?

And now for the bottom line question.  Is it worth paying more to get early boarding?  The answer to that is “it depends”.  The notion of “early boarding” is a surprisingly nuanced one.  Sure, there might be three or four or even five or six stages of boarding and numbered boarding zones/priorities on tickets.

And so, on the face of it, if you’re in zone one or even zone two or three, the odds are in your favor, because we know that over half the passengers on a flight do get overhead space.

But, there are two additional things to keep in mind.

The first is that there are unnumbered priority boarding zones before the general boarding zones.  We all know the traditional “families with children or anyone else needing a bit of extra time” getting to board first (I’ve always wondered why they get to board first and thereby delay every other passenger, rather than last and delay none).  And we know first class boards before coach class.

But then there’s the growing number of other priorities.  The platinum/gold/silver/emerald/bronze/whatever level frequent fliers.  And similar frequent fliers from other airline partners.  People with airline issued credit cards that give higher priority boarding.  People with more expensive fares that include higher priority boarding.

And then there are the people that you just know are “cheating” and boarding ahead of their turn.  We’ve seen people like that, plenty of times, but we very seldom see them turned away when their ticket is scanned (if they are going up alone, there’s a chance, but if they merge in with a crowd of other people boarding, no-one seems to care).

By the time you get to “Zone One” boarding, you are probably the fourth or fifth group of people to be let onto the plane.  And you know, when you get onto the plane, it is probably already half full, and the overheads two-thirds or more full.

So your “priority boarding” probably means you’re not even among the first half of people who get onto the plane.  But it also means that there’s probably still some overhead space for you, and much more likely to be so than if you’re in zone two or three or whatever and forced to take whatever scant space remains.

Is that worth paying for?  Only you know that – only you know how large your carry-on is and how valuable it is to get it up above you rather than to either end up gate-checking it or having it fill the space at your feet.

But many of us will probably choose to do so.  And the airlines know that.  Which is why they smile and look the other way when people bring ridiculous amounts of carry-on with them onto a plane.  Because those people and their cheating are creating the demand that sells the priority boarding.

3 thoughts on “The Real Benefit of Early Airplane Boarding”

    1. Hi, Mike

      That concept might work well for trips to a single destination. But what if you’re going to two or three places and then home again? That becomes an appreciable hassle (and cost), plus you still should keep with you all essential “can’t be without” items.

      In other words, the shipping luggage is maybe an alternative to checked bags. But not so much an alternative to a carry-on bag.

  1. I fly Jet Blue several cross country flights a year. Since they board back to front, I try to get my window seat in row 20 or higher. (First group called after priorities is “rows 20-25”.)

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