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Travel like a pro: How boarding works

Originally posted here.

Everyone’s been there. That moment when you’ve printed your boarding pass, made it through security, and have found a coveted seat in the boarding area. It’s a moment when you take a deep breath and prepare for what comes next – boarding.

The first thing to remember is a rule that should apply any time you travel – pack your patience. The front wheels of the aircraft leave the runway about two seconds before the rear wheels, meaning that everyone takes off at basically the same time. So there is no need to rush to get on. Remember that everyone’s going to the same place and that being patient will result in a smoother boarding process.

Alaska’s gate agents will arrive at the gate 60 minutes prior to the scheduled departure if you have questions. Give them a few minutes to get set up and then they’ll be better prepared to help.

“Do I need my ID?” On domestic flights, they won’t need to check your identification again once you’ve gone through security, so you can go ahead and put it away. If you are flying international, you’ll want to have your passport out and ready as the gate agent will check it prior to boarding.

After you’ve put your identification away, now is not the time to go and get a coffee (unless of course you’re absolutely craving one and have plenty of time to spare)! One of the reasons boarding can feel like it takes forever is because of the amount of available hands. Think of it this way: if you have a coffee, one bag and a purse or briefcase, that’s a lot of stuff for two hands to handle. Plus, you’ll need to get that boarding pass out, or scan your phone as you board. Keeping one hand free will not only help you as you make your way down to the plane, but will also allow you to move freely through the aisles, and avoid any hot coffee on your lap, or worse, someone else’s.

The last thing to remember when boarding a flight is to relax. Everyone will make it on the airplane. And here’s a tip: most jet bridges do not have air conditioning or heat, so it can get uncomfortable standing there. It’s more comfortable if you relax and remain seated until your boarding group is called.

And, if you’re a list person, here is a quick guide to how Alaska’s boarding process works. Happy travels!

  1. 40 minutes before departure: Agents will make an announcement letting you know it’s time to board. No need to move, this is just information to let you know that it’s time to get ready (i.e. free up your hands).

  2. 35 minutes before departure: Some special groups board first: Members of the military, customers who need special services or additional time to board, and families with children under 2

  3. 30 minutes before departure: Next comes first class customers

  4. 25 minutes before departure: After first class customers are frequent fliers (Alaska Mileage Plan elite members) and those who have purchased Premium Class seating

  5. 20 minutes before departure: Finally every else boards in two groups, starting with customers seated behind the exit rows.

Over the years, Alaska has tested out many different boarding processes and Jeff Butler, Alaska’s vice president of airport operations and customer service says it best. “Boarding is an exciting time for passengers, as this is the gateway to their adventure. We want this process to be seamless, so we’ve tried many different boarding configurations. We’ve tested dual-door boarding; window, middle, aisle; random boarding to name a few. Through these trials, we’ve found that the way we’re doing it now is the best way for us to get you through quickly and efficiently.”

Even though this works for us now, we’re always looking for ways to reduce the stress and anxiety that comes with boarding the aircraft. So, to further our work, you may see us testing new general boarding lanes in Seattle and Portland.

Here’s a run-through of a few ways Alaska has experimented improving the boarding process for customers over the years. Some have worked better than others:

Dual-door boarding:

Customers board simultaneously from the front and back doors of the airplane. The problem? The two waves of passengers collided in the middle, creating a serious traffic jam around row 18. While not a good fit for Alaska’s 737 jets, customers flying regional partner Horizon Air have been boarding this way for years with no problems.

Window, middle, aisle boarding:

Customers board based on their seat assignment. Customers with window seats go first, then customers with middle seats, then customers with aisle seats. The problem? Travelers didn’t always understand their seat assignments, which led to confusion onboard and slowed down the boarding process.

Random boarding:

Groups of customers are randomly selected and assigned to boarding times, theoretically to spread customers around the aircraft. The problem? Total chaos.


Customers who opted in received text messages alerting them that it was their turn to board. The problem? The airport is a noisy, bustling environment and customers who never received their text messages or didn’t notice the alert ended up in a traffic jam at the end.

Biometric boarding:

Customers use fingerprints to pass through security checkpoints and board flights instead of juggling paper or mobile boarding passes and IDs. Alaska recently wrapped up a test of biometric boarding in San Jose, California. While the initial test has come to an end, stay tuned as Alaska’s research and development team considers the next steps for biometrics. The problem: Fingerprint boarding isn’t an option for everyone, as about 2 in every 100 people do not have readable fingerprints.

Smart watch boarding:

Customers board using a smart watch app. While Alaska’s debut Apple Watch app did not include boarding passes as a feature, industrious customers saved boarding passes to Apple’s Passbook app to scan at security checkpoints and the boarding gate. The problem? Alaska’s mobile team omitted that feature for one very specific reason: the average adult wrist does not fit inside the “clam shell” scanners the airline uses at the gate. Customers found they had to remove watches entirely to scan them, and it slowed down the boarding lines. But tech aficionados need not worry – Alaska’s airport and mobile teams are looking at alternate solutions that would allow for smart watch boarding passes.

What is your boarding preference?

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