Seating window seat passengers first saves time, says US airline. So why don’t more do it?

Boarding window seat fliers first shaves minutes off plane journeys.
Boarding window seat fliers first shaves minutes off plane journeys. Copyright Canva
By Euronews Travel with AP
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The window seat just got even better under this airline’s new tried and tested policy.


A US airline will start boarding passengers with window seats first from next week, in a bid to reduce the time planes spend sitting on the ground.

United Airlines said in an internal memo that it will start the new seating plan for economy class customers on 26 October.

The plan - called WILMA, for window, middle and aisle - was tested at several locations and deemed to shave up to two minutes off boarding time.

Variations of the WILMA approach have existed for many years.

“It spreads people out along the aisle of the airplane so that more people can put their luggage away at the same time. That's the main thing that speeds up the boarding process,” explains Jason Steffen, an associate professor of physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

After waiting in one boarding line too many, Steffen designed his own boarding model a decade ago.

Which passengers will the new boarding plan apply to?

The change will begin with passengers in the fourth boarding group.

Customers in first class and business class will see no change in their routine. And there's also no change for those with priority-boarding privileges, including travellers with disabilities, unaccompanied children, active-duty military, and families with children who are 2 or under.

Chicago-based United said that when multiple customers are on the same economy reservation, such as families, they will be allowed to board together.

The new policy will be used on domestic flights and some international flights.

United Airlines says that it will start boarding passengers in economy class with window seats first starting next week.
United Airlines says that it will start boarding passengers in economy class with window seats first starting next week.AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The quest for the perfect boarding process

Airlines have long searched for the perfect boarding process. Even Orville and Wilbur Wright flipped a coin to see who got the lone seat on their flying machine.

United is making changes now because, it says, average boarding time has increased by two minutes since 2019.

Tinkering with the boarding process has increased since airlines began charging fees for checked bags more than a decade ago. Those fees encourage passengers to bring carry-on bags, which generally are still free except at low-cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier, in the US.

“Any time you have to wrestle with luggage up over your head, it's going to slow things down,” Steffen said.

Airlines prioritise priority boarding

The push to board faster is also complicated by the airlines' desire to sell early boarding or give it to elite members of their frequent-flier programs. 

Only after those people are seated - generally near the front of the plane - can everyone else board, passing the priority customers on the way to their seats in the back of the cabin.

“Priority boarding is a moneymaker. Up to a certain point, that money is worth more than worrying about boarding three minutes earlier every time,” said Seth Miller, who writes about the travel experience at

Two minutes doesn't make much difference on a transatlantic flight, but on heavily trafficked shorter routes - between the Hawaiian islands, for example - delays tend to cascade, pushing late-day flights farther and farther behind schedule.


If a few passengers dawdle while stowing their bag and finding their seat, it can make the difference between a flight being on time or late in the government’s official statistics.

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