“Welcome Aboard Group #6!” The Future of Airline Boarding


I am usually in the last group to board the airplane on any trip I choose to take. It might have to do with using “frequent flier miles” or buying discounted fares. But, almost invariably, I am in Boarding Group #5.

There is something mildly humiliating about this. Kind of like being placed in “the dumb row” (as it was then called by the kids) back in the primary grades. How is the order of boarding determined? I have two theories:

  1. Cheap labor in terms of monkeys in front of keyboards, randomly pressing keys that will make the assignment.
  2. A more systematic and thoughtful attempt based on the following characteristics:
  • Group #1. Rich, famous, well-connected, well-dressed, influential individuals.
  • Group #2. Business people in charge of running the world, making money; the movers and shakers.
  • Group #3. Good and decent folks who go on frequent vacations and enjoy their lives. “Hot” men and women who didn’t get into the first two groups.
  • Group #4. People who typically fall into the above groups, but are having a bad day. Maybe they bought the tickets a bit late or were assigned to Group #4 by accident.
  • My group. Moral reprobates, the unwanted, the unwashed, the unpopular, and any individual with a history of at least two years of prison time and a certificate proving that he received his Governor’s pardon while on “death row.”

In other words, being in Group #5 is never a badge of honor. But today I suffered an additional humiliation that I didn’t even know existed. Something new. I was assigned to Group #6.

Normally it is difficult enough as a member of Group #5 to find any overhead space for my carry-on luggage. Now what?

A few minutes ago I asked the woman manning the desk in front of the gate what it meant. “Oh, we just started that. We are trying to speed up departures since a lot of people have complained about delays. So once the first five groups are seated, we will push-off. Then the people in Group #6 will be asked to start running toward the moving plane. The crew will drop a rope ladder and you just grab it with one hand, keep hold of your luggage with the other, climb up, and knock on the door. We’ve been able to reduce delays by up to five minutes this way.” She paused to look me up and down. “You look pretty spry for an old guy. I’ll bet you can do it.”

I looked at the young woman in disbelief.

“Thanks for the compliment,” I said with some irony in my voice. “You said you’d bet that I could do this. Exactly how much are you willing to wager?”

The woman turned to the other lady in charge of the counter and pointed her in my direction. “Hey Trixie! How much are you willing to bet that this guy can make the “rope ladder boarding?'”

“How old is he?” Trixie replied. “Remember, if he is a senior he gets a five second head-start.”

My eyes started to water after I’d told her that I am, in fact, a senior. I was touched that the airline was willing to give me the extra five seconds.

Trixie reached into her purse after a long look at me. “I’ve got $2.50. How about that for a bet?”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said, as I regained my composure. “But what if I shouldn’t make it? What if I fall down?”

“Oh, in that case we give you a seat on the next available flight — assuming there is an open seat, of course. And, you get to board in Group #5.

She pointed across the concourse to what appeared to be an empty space that had just a bit of equipment. “Why don’t you go to that room over there. You can practice running and climbing the rope ladder. We’ve got it all set up. And, for $5 we will sell you a knee guard in case you fall. What would you like, one knee or two?”

I opted for protection on both knees, forked over the $10, and did a little practice. I’m back in the waiting area now. They are going to call Group #6 soon, so I have to go. Let’s hope that I don’t disappoint Trixie. I’d hate to cost her $2.50.

The photo is of a Vietnam Airlines Boeing 777-200 taking off from the Frankfurt Airport in 2012. The photographer is Milad A 380 and the image is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Frustration of Waiting in Line: Idle Thoughts about the Queue


The folks in the above photo don’t look too happy. They are waiting for a bus in Chicago back in 1973. Just the year before, my grad school roommate Don Osborn told me that he’d had a nightmare about getting into his car, merging into traffic, and thereby creating complete and total gridlock — everywhere and forever. Talk about a long wait.

Earlier this month, a 125-mile traffic jam on the highway from St.Petersburg to Moscow lasted an entire weekend, Friday through Sunday. A snowstorm was identified as the cause.

At least the folks in the traffic jam presumably had access to car radios, music systems, and internet-connected phones. Those in the 1973 photo had none of those things. What might they have done to pass the time?

  • Talked to their neighbors.
  • Meditate (not as popular then as now, however).
  • Think about the things they were grateful for.

Based on their facial expressions, however, it looks as though they were preoccupied. They appear to be compulsively checking the horizon, hoping to spot the bus, forgetful of the old adage “A watched pot never boils.” Some are surely grumbling about the traffic, the lousy public transportation system, the cold weather; or worrying about the appointment for which they will be late.

A more productive activity would have been to think about the countless previous times they’d been late in their lives, caught in lines of one sort or another, and how life went on without tragic consequences. Or, they could have spent the time contemplating those who suffer real tragedies, and realize that waiting in line is small potatoes by comparison.

No one would have stopped them from looking around at the architecture or doing some people-watching. I suspect there were lists to be made, too. Things like:

  • What do I need to get at the grocery?
  • What are the things I need to work on to be a better person?
  • What have I been putting off that I need to put on the top of my to-do list.

They probably didn’t, of course.

Various estimates suggest that we Americans spend two to three years of our lives in line. A lack of control seems to be part of what makes this unpleasant. Many of the same people who hate being in line will procrastinate on tasks that cause them even more agony than a time-wasting queue. I recall my anticipatory anxiety as I contemplated calling a girl for my first-ever date in high school. I must have stared at the telephone (only land-lines existed back then) for an hour or more. I’ve long since learned that getting things over with quickly is not only more efficient, but reduces suffering; and, that the lead-up is by far the worst part of the process. She said “yes,” by the way.

Bowery Men Waiting in Breadline, 1910

Bowery Men Waiting in Breadline, 1910

Another way of dealing with involuntary waiting is to reframe the situation. Instead of seeing it as a problem, you might look upon it as an opportunity to learn a zen-like patience. That attitude would cause you to be grateful to the inefficient checkout clerk at the store or the person in line ahead of you who has 13 different coupons to process and is writing a time-consuming check rather than using cash or a credit card. But, if patience seems a stretch for you, some effort to accept the things you can’t change could work to make you feel less aggravated.

Waiting can sometimes build anticipation in a good way. If the world were filled only with immediate gratification of every desire, I suspect we would value all those pleasures less. Waiting for a first kiss or the chance to attend your first Major League baseball game gives those (very different) events more meaning because of the wait. Waiting for a well-prepared meal leads to more satisfaction than a quick trip to McDonald’s. Indeed, the excitement of Christmas Day for small children is entirely dependent on the delayed gratification involved. The sheer joy of watching one’s children explode out of bed to open their gifts is something to behold.

Issues of fairness and self-recrimination seem to pop-up more in places where there are multiple queues. If you’ve chosen the slowest moving line, you’re likely to kick yourself or to get angry that “your” checker isn’t more efficient. On the other hand, if you happen to make the “right” choice of which line to stand in, you probably aren’t going to think you are the luckiest person in the world. In other words, the movement of your line matters more when it is slow than when it progresses rapidly.


Funny that few people say they can’t wait to get to heaven. As much as the faithful identify it as the ultimate reward, doctors don’t see too many patients neglecting treatment of life-threatening diseases because they want to checkout faster. And so, most of us do our best to keep our spot in the mortality-queue static; and are happy to let someone else jump ahead, hoping in this kind of column alone, that things move slowly.

Even when we aren’t in line, we spend much time waiting. When you are little you can’t wait to grow up. A bit later, you can’t wait to get your driver’s license and then go to college. Then, too many of us wait for the weekend and are impatient to retire, waiting for the gold watch and the free time that comes along with a Social Security check.

Just perhaps, we are preoccupied with the wrong thing. Whenever we are “just waiting,” we aren’t focused on the present moment or anything that might be of value. We are, like the people in the top photo, looking down the street for the bus that is going to take us someplace better in the future, or so we think. Yet, most would agree, the time is going to waste.

The next time you find yourself in a slow-moving line, it might serve you well to consider another way to use your queue time. There is much to ponder, much to love, much to learn in life. The line might be a kind of study hall or a laboratory to make a new discovery. The queue gives you a chance to change yourself.

What are you waiting for?

The first image is called Queuing Up For the Bus, photographed by Paul Sequeira in Chicago, 1973 for the EPA. The final photo is of “Sailors assigned to the phone and distance line detail wait to start a replenishment at sea from the bridge deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43). Fort McHenry is deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group supporting maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Wilson). All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.