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This year, United dropped its practice of allowing families to board planes before other travelers. The legacy carrier joined the ranks of American and US Airways, which don't officially offer pre-boarding or early boarding of any kind for families. But a handful of other airlines still do, including Delta (the last legacy airline supporting family-friendly boarding), JetBlue, and Southwest.

The industry's approach to boarding is mixed, as is, ostensibly, popular opinion.  In a recent poll of more than 1,000 respondents, we asked our readers who should board planes first: disabled travelers, frequent flyers, families, or those who've paid extra. Seventy-seven percent of respondents answered that disabled flyers should board ahead of everyone else; this lines up with standard industry practice. But respondents' opinions about the three other groups were split: 9 percent said those who've paid extra should board first, 7 percent sided with families, and 7 percent voted for elite frequent flyers.

When we posed the same question on our Facebook page, reader Melissa Lory Smith commented, "We have two small children and I'd rather board last. Why would you want [to be] in your seat longer than you have to?"

Smith's assertion touches on the crux of the issue: Boarding should be arranged in such a way that everyone spends as little time on the plane as possible. This means we need to get strategic. According to The New York Times, aircraft boarding time has doubled over the past few decades. Airlines have experimented with different boarding procedures over the years, but they clearly haven't achieved a system that's efficient enough to revolutionize boarding and gain industry standardization as of yet. American West Airlines tried a reverse-pyramid style of boarding, which was developed by a team of industrial engineers. Yet after American West merged with US Airways in 2002, the reverse-pyramid model was axed. Reports The New York Times, "US Airways dropped it in 2007 because some passengers without elite status sitting in the front could not find space for their bags."

Airline profits drive the boarding process. To please its most faithful customers (business- and first-class flyers, as well as everyone with elite, gold medallion, diamond or whatever plunder-worthy status that's been bestowed by an airline), most carriers board by groups with little or no regard to speed and efficiency. This ensures that frequent flyers get early access to precious overhead bin space, a hot commodity now that checked bags incur all kinds of extra charges.

Slow, hierarchical boarding processes also create more opportunity for airlines to generate revenue through passenger fees. So, in the end, many frustrated flyers pay priority-boarding costs in order to avoid checked-bag fees. (See a list of airlines that sell priority boarding on Airfarewatchdog.) It's a me-first system in which airlines are corralling fees and passengers are grappling for the short-term benefit of bin space—and it's a system in which passengers ultimately lose.

Let's stop arguing over who gets to stand at the front of the line. Pre-boarding should be offered to passengers who need assistance, whether it's a traveler with mobility issues or a mom traveling with several strollers and a crew of antsy tots. But beyond that, we should dump the ridiculous pecking order and file on the plane in accordance with a well-tested, timesaving system set up by engineers. Then maybe we'll all get to spend a little less time on the plane. 

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This article was originally posted on SmarterTravel, the largest online travel resource for unbiased travel news, deals, and timely expert advice

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Comment by Juan Martinez on October 19, 2012 at 8:55pm

I don't think you will ever get Iberia to be this rational, but here is my plan: Passenger boarding should start with passengers whose seats are in the rear so there is no blocking in the aisles. The information on the internet booking site (for ex. delta.com) and the gate attendant should tell passengers they may not store their bags in bins that are ahead of their seats, and flight attendants should enforce that. Then people in the front of the plane won't mind boarding last and the boarding will be quicker. That is better for the passengers and for the airlines. Can anybody really disagree with my plan?  

Comment by Ed Wetschler on October 19, 2012 at 4:51pm

"Boarding should be arranged in such a way that everyone spends as little time on the plane as possible" [my italics]. This is the smartest commentary I've read on boarding, bar none. 

Note to Tripatini members: How would you structure boarding? 

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