It is just after 6 a.m., and darkness is in a holding pattern outside John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Outside Gate 8 at the American Airlines terminal, our gate attendant has just made the initial boarding call for Flight 1468 to Phoenix. Most of my fellow 157 passengers begin to queue up and engage in the subtle art of passive-aggressive jostling for better position. Better position for what, exactly?
As my fellow travelers begin to congregate, I remain seated, enjoying the last few gulps of caffeinated ambrosia. Observing the scrum I wonder: Why is everyone so anxious to board a plane before they absolutely must? Don’t they realize that their seat is already assigned and purchased? Why do air travelers have a Ricky Bobby approach (“If you ain’t first, you’re last”) to boarding a flight?
Well, you say, I want to board earlier to ensure there is room in the overhead compartments for my overstuffed carry-on. Why? If you board the flight after all the overhead compartments are filled, the airline will check your bag for free. (What schmuck still checks a bag that is small enough to pass through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint?) Yes, you will have to wait for the bag to arrive on a luggage carousel, but at least you won’t be that guy trying to shimmy five rows against the tide of deplaning passengers to retrieve his bag that he stored further back in the cabin.
I don’t understand it. We are all about to spend, in this case, nearly five claustrophobic hours together on a flying piece of tin, so why would you want to add 10 to 20 minutes to that ordeal, not to mention waiting in line on the Jetway? You will not miss the in-flight safety demonstration. Besides, you just waited 15 to 30 minutes in the TSA line. Wasn’t that experience traumatic enough?
A few caveats. First, if you are accompanied by small children or the elderly or happen to be either, you may want to board first. The airlines are aware of this, which is why they make a special announcement inviting you to do so. Second, if you are a first-class passenger, you can probably score a pre-emptive whiskey-ginger while those of us in coach are still shooting hostile stares at the bro in the “Hobart Lacrosse” hoodie who is on his phone overusing the term rad. Or at the lady with the Vuitton bag who insists that no other carry-ons make contact with it.
Third, if you are flying Southwest, whose system of seating passengers is straight outta Lord of the Flies, I understand. It’s first-come, first-serve on Southwest. Who among us has not boarded a Southwest flight when the only available remaining seats were in the middle and not felt completely shunned? If you ever wanted to remember how it felt to be the new kid boarding the school bus, Southwest will supply that nostalgia for you.
Some people argue that they just want to find their seat sooner, to settle in. But it’s not as if they will be the ones driving this bus. On most flights, a full one-third of passengers are jostling in line for the satisfaction of arriving at a middle seat a few minutes early. A dreaded middle seat, and there are folks who want to spend more time than necessary in it? To think that you could be spending that time at a book rack, mulling whether you will buy the latest offering from Malcolm Gladwell.
I might be willing to board a plane at the appropriate time, when my group is called, if the airlines considered enforcing their boarding rules. When the attendant requests that, say, Rows 18 to 30 approach the gate, too many of my fellow passengers in the forward rows ignore the parameters. Too many air travelers are selfish and disobedient, while airlines are disinclined to curb the anarchy. The prevailing wisdom, apparently, is that if the gate agent dares to tell the guy seated in 8B that they are boarding only the final 12 rows, then 8B will never fly that airline again. Poppycock. He’s flying whoever shows up cheapest on his travel site or whoever he has frequent flier miles with.
With civility having been hijacked, so to speak, by scores of rude travelers, some of us choose the less turbulent route to boarding. I prefer to treat boarding a plane much as a 3-year-old does. A 3-year-old thoroughbred running at the Kentucky Derby, that is. I want to be the very last one in the gate. I cherish those final 20 minutes of peace, of not standing in line with a bag slung over my shoulder. I never even consider standing up and shuffling toward the gate until I hear the words “Final boarding call…”
A long time ago, I had an epiphany that allows me to remain seated while the rest of you anxiously mill around the gate like traders at the New York Stock Exchange trying to unload shares of Twitter. That realization? The last person to board this flight will be arriving in Phoenix at the exact same time as the first person to board it does.