Why do airlines board in such a strange order?

Ever wonder what the deal is with the “zones” that are printed on your boarding pass or why it seems like they’re boarding planes in a completely backwards way? Seems like if you wanted to save time you’d fill up the back of the plane first as you filed in from the front. Instead, you often find your way fighting to get to the back of the plane against the flow of people who walked to the back to stow their luggage in your overhead-bin and the boarding process takes twice as long as it should. Frustrating, isn’t it?

Fact of the matter is, airlines don’t necessarily try to mash everyone up on purpose. What they do try to do, however, is try to cater to their first class and frequent flyers by awarding them with better seats and priority boarding. These travelers usually want to sit near the front of the plane (it’s quieter and you can get out faster) and when the airlines pre-board them they usually file in, put their bags wherever they want and take a seat before the herd arrives.


So it’s not really a matter of the frequent flyer wanting to be in the stuffy, bacteria soaked plane longer, but rather that they want to settle in, take a seat, open up their book and drink their cranberry juice before fighting the masses.
Some carriers, like Northwest Airlines, used to specifically board the elites first, then load the regular passengers in zones from back to front. Few years back though they realized that it really didn’t save that much time to board in this way and that they wanted the gate agents to be busy elsewhere instead of herding traffic. Now they preboard those with special needs, first class then elite members before releasing the stampede onto the plane.

I used to wait until the the last possible second before I got onto the plane. Now, with the checked luggage restrictions and volumes in the overhead bins, I try to get on as early as possible so there is space for my backpack above; I can’t stand it when people put their oversized luggage above my seat.