One of the holy grails of travelling by air is making the boarding process faster. That seemingly interminable hurry-up-and-wait is one of the most frustrating parts of travel, especially if you’re carrying your luggage with you and hoping there’ll be room in the bins.

airport queue.jpg
Queueing at the airport gate can be frustrating © izusek / Getty Images

But Gatwick Airport is doing some research on how to fix all that. If you’re passing through and fancy a gander, take a look at gate 101 and you’ll find out what’s going on, with new big digital monitors and special staff explaining how it all works and helping people to get in the right place.

Abhi Chacko, Gatwick’s Head of Enabling Technologies and Digital Innovation, explains: “We want to explore whether boarding by seat number will avoid queues in the gate room and when boarding the aircraft. Early indications are that this new technique has the potential to reduce the overall boarding time.” Of course, any change like this will mean passengers need to be brought up to speed on how everything is different — hence the big screens and airport customer service employees to help travellers figure out what’s going on. “By communicating to passengers better and boarding passengers by seat number, we also expect to make the whole boarding experience more relaxing and, potentially, prevent large numbers of passenger rushing forward at any stage,” Chacko hopes.

Gatwick plans to test a range of options, many of which have been tried before, but the idea is to figure out what works for the airport’s mixture of leisure passenger and business travellers. And it plans to use a number of airlines, with easyJet reportedly involved. Speeding up turnarounds is particularly useful for a low-cost airline like easyJet, because their model is to make as many flights in a day as possible.

Pier-1-gate-room-01.jpg
Gatwick Airport is testing faster ways to board planes © Gatwick Airport

There are many ideas for breaking the bottlenecks…

As a rule, the bottlenecks on the plane come at the moment where passengers make it down the aisle, reach their row and start stowing their bags, taking off their coats, disturbing anyone already seated to get past, and so on. If this happens at row 1, that slows the entire rest of the plane down. (That’s not to dismiss the newest and most frustrating type of bottleneck, where you’re processed at the boarding desk and left to stand like a lemming on or just before the jetbridge, because the aircraft isn’t ready to be boarded yet.)

boarding airplane.jpg
Would boarding planes aisle by aisle speed up the process? © bezikus / Shutterstock

The idea, therefore, is to start boarding passengers in the window seats at the back of the plane and then move forward. Interestingly, you might assume (for a thirty-row plane) that you’d start with the rear left window (30A) and then the rear right window (30K), but it seems the first part of the trial is starting with 30A, then 29A, and so on up the left-hand side of the plane. It’ll be nifty to see whether that works any better than rear left, rear-right, next left, next right as a model.

Now, your question might be “but what if I’m travelling with my other half or as a family?” After all, imagine if Little Timmy has 30A, one of his mums has 30B, but the rest of the family are on the other side of the aisle in 30E and 30F. The answer for that, Gatwick tells me, is that families — as well as people who need additional assistance to board — will be allowed to preboard with passengers who’ve bought one of the packages like easyJet’s Speedy Boarding. That’s all well and good — I don’t have kids myself but I think every passenger would agree that anything to make happy, settled, chilled-out kids who have everything they need to occupy themselves quietly for the flight is a big plus, and if it means that their accompanying adults can enjoy a relaxed beverage then that’s so much the better..

gatwick airport.jpg
The airfield at Gatwick Airport © Gatwick Airport

Money doesn’t just make the world go around…

If everything else was rational, airlines would probably use this sort of rear-boarding system. It’s certainly been studied before.  The thing is, airlines aren’t always rational in that way. It might be fine for an airline that didn’t sell certain economy class seats for more than it sold other seats. But if you’re selling seats that come with priority boarding, that gets tricky.

For example, easyJet sells its first row seats for between £13-30, seats at the front of the plane or at the exit rows by the wings from £8-25, and seats in the rest of the plane from £2-9. For a bit of cheap and cheerful winter sun travelling from Gatwick to Malaga in January when I looked, for example, easyJet was asking £26 in row 2, £22.50 in rows 2-5, £7 from rows 6-9, £22.50 from rows 10-11, and £5 from rows 12-26.

As you might imagine, if you spent the extra money for a good seat — only the ones above £20 come with Speedy Boarding — part of the reason why is so you can get swiftly onto the plane, stow your extra cabin bag and get settled in before the rush. It also doesn’t take into account business class, whose passengers are very keen to make the most of their time by avoiding waiting in queues. And quite a lot of the full service airlines like British Airways, American Airlines, Emirates and so on have various levels of frequent flyers whose loyalty gets them perks like early boarding. 

So I’ll be really interested to see what Gatwick comes up with here. None of this is revolutionary, but if it’s the right mixture of new technology and bonuses for both passengers and airlines, it has the potential to be a success all around.

Aviation journalist John Walton writes regularly on travel for Lonely Planet and a variety of aviation magazines. He welcomes questions and discussions from readers on Twitter (he’s @thatjohn) or via email to john@walton.travel

Explore related stories

Dominical, Costa Rica - An aerial view of a car driving along a dirt road surrounded by water on either side.  © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Destination Practicalities

Getting around in Costa Rica

Jul 3, 2024 • 6 min read