The television show MythBusters has an episode called Airplane Boarding. During this episode six different boarding methods are explored to find the ones that have the best satisfaction and lowest time.

For realism the team use real seats, real cabin crew and proper overhead lockers. In addition, 5% of passengers are instructed to sit in the wrong seat or do other things to delay people.

Customer satisfaction is measured in a simple manner. A positive experience receives 1 point, neutral receives 0 and negative receives -1 point. Let’s have a look at it.

MythBusters Try WILMA

Who is Wilma? This is an acronym which describes a method where window seats are boarded first, then middle, then the aisle. This handy graphic from the episode shows the order. Customer satisfaction using this method is quite high.

Another variation of this method is the WILMA with blocks which is the same but boarding from the rear in blocks. It is illustrated below.

This method results in a similar time and receives similar customer satisfaction scores to the straight WILMA. Both of these methods are quite interesting and are very different to the current boarding routine.

Random Boarding and Reverse Pyramid

Random boarding which is sometimes used by low cost carriers is easily the fastest boarding method. Interestingly it also has the lowest customer satisfaction of all which is probably why carriers like Ryanair have abandoned it.

Another method tried is the Reverse Pyramid which scores similar times to WILMA and has the highest customer satisfaction. The graphic above illustrates the method best. It is sort of staggered from back to front windows to aisle.

The Current Method Is The Slowest

In common use today is boarding by zones. First / Business class board first, then the aircraft is boarded by zones from the rear. This is by far the slowest of the six methods tested in the episode, which you can see in the table below.

Assigning everyone a seat and letting everyone board when they like is actually faster than the above. Both methods have fairly low customer satisfaction.

Watch MythBusters Airplane Boarding

If you wish to watch the episode it is available on YouTube below and I think anyone who is a frequent flyer or interested in aviation would like to check it out.

The show always does its best to ensure the conditions are as real as possible and that all permutations are attempted. In this case the myth that boarding back to front is the slowest is confirmed.

Overall Thoughts

Customer dissatisfaction with the free seating method is obvious in the test and as mentioned airlines like Ryanair no longer use this method of boarding. Considering the high customer satisfaction of WILMA and the Reverse Pyramid, how come they are not used?

It could be argued that people would not like a new and unfamiliar method but people adapt. Before the advent of low cost carriers, free seating was unfamiliar and people got with the programme.

An issue with WILMA and the Reverse Pyramid is that people travelling together are separated during boarding. The customer satisfaction scores under test conditions show all is well but it would be interesting to see under real world conditions.

What do you think? Should airlines be trying a boarding method that gives a higher customer satisfaction? Is the current method just fine? Leave your comments below and thanks for reading!

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Stills from MythBusters Episode 222: Airplane Boarding, produced by Beyond Productions Pty. Ltd. for The Discovery Channel. Thanks also to the MythBusters Results web site.