There are plenty of ways you can control the quality of time and money you spend on air travel—from choosing the best seat on an airplane, to following the best day to buy plane tickets, to avoiding the most germ-ridden reaches of the plane. One thing you can’t control, sadly, is one of the biggest time sucks of air travel: how the passengers board the plane.
Various airlines rely on various methods for boarding their passengers, but an overwhelming majority (including American, Spirit, JetBlue, and Virgin) use the least-efficient method—back-to-front. After First and Business class passengers take their seats, passengers board by zones, typically beginning in the back of the place and moving toward the front of the economy cabin.
This makes sense, in theory (passengers seated further back won’t get in the way of passengers seated toward the front) but in practice it couldn’t be worse. According to a series of simulations run by TV’s Mythbusters, it is literally faster to board the plane completely randomly; the back-to-front method took an average of 24 minutes and 29 seconds to get every passenger seated, while filling seats at random only took 17 minutes, 15 seconds.
Why is back-to-front so inefficient? The method doesn’t account for the inevitable bottleneck of passengers that occurs in the aisle of the plane while everyone is trying to cram their carry-on into the same overhead areas. When the aisle backs up, the airbridge backs up, and when the airbridge backs up, the queue at the gate backs up, and when the queue at the gate backs up, dad’s coffee gets cold, and now everyone can expect five hours of seething grump. Lose, lose, lose.