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Seasoned travelers manage to board and disembark airplanes with so little difficulty that first time flyers think these people are magicians. Not quite but they do know what's going to happen and asked me to write this article to share the knowledge with infrequent flyers.


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Travel Advice/Travel Tips -  Boarding airplanes, the how to guide for infrequent flyers

Boarding airplanes is a serious task that can move along more rapidly when travelers are prepared for the ins and outs of boarding.

Finding your plane's departure gate

After you have checked in and passed through security, head for your gate. 

  • The gate number will be stamped on your boarding pass, along with the time that boarding will occur. 
  • Gates are identified by numbers or a combination of letters and numbers (for example, 3A).  
  • Airports usually do a good job of signing the locations of these gates. 
  • If in doubt, ask.

If you are uncertain of any aspect of boarding, ask the staff at your gate and they will usually provide you a helpful answer.

Where is your seat?

Your seat number should be listed in a prominent  location your boarding pass.

  • If you have a seating preference, discuss it with the reservation agent at the time of booking the ticket. See our article on the Flyer's guide to air comfort for a discussion of seating locations)  
  • If you did not request or were not assigned at seat number when you purchased your ticket, you will receive one when you check-in for the flight. 
  • The seat number on your ticket corresponds to a specific seat on the plane.

Airplanes have seats that are numbered and lettered.

  • The number represents the row of your seat.
    • The row numbers increase (usually from seat2 or 3) from the front of the plane (the cockpit area) to the rear of the plane.
  • The letter identifies your seat in the row.
    •  A common cabin configuration is three seats on each side of a central aisle. 
      • The seats on one side are usually labeled A, B, C  and the remaining seats labeled D, E, F.
  • You will usually board at the front of the plane and the larger the number of the row on your ticket, the further back you will find your seat's row.

Most airplanes feature seating arranged by class of service.

  • The First Class section is closest to the front of the plane.
  • First Class is followed by Business Class (often absent on domestic flights in the U.S.).
  • Economy follows Business (unless there is no Business Class in which case Economy follows First Class) and is located towards the rear of the plane.

Most airlines begin the boarding process by announcing that they will pre-board families with children or persons needing assistance boarding.

  • If you are traveling with young children, confirm pre-boarding for families when you arrive at the gate and ask when the announcement will be made.
  •  If pre-boarding is not available, you will have to wait and board by ticket class and seat number.

Most airlines start the boarding process with First Class customers.

  • Next, Business Class will board, if the plane has a business class section.
  • During both First and Business Class boarding, most airlines invite members of their flying clubs to board.
    • These people are ones who have flown many miles on the airline and identify themselves to the gate crew by showing a card provided by the airline indicating the customer’s status as an extreme, frequent flier.

The economy section of the airplane is boarded by row number. Wait a minute, the other sections are boarded by class and Economy is boarded by row? Yes, the Economy section is the largest section of the plane, contains the most customers, and is usually the most congested part of the boarding process.

The gate crew will announce boarding by row and start with the row number near the end of the plane.

  • The reason for working from the tail towards the front of the airplane is an attempt to avoid congestion in the aisle.
  • As your row is called, queue up, and be prepared to present your travel documents.

As you head towards the door providing access to the plane, you will hand your ticket to gate personnel who will certify that your ticket is valid, and if it is, grant you access to the plane.

Once you have passed though the gate crew, you will head into the airplane.

  • When you actually board the plane, look to see which side of the plane your seat (e.g. 28e) is on.
  •  If the airplane is of the wide body variety, there will be seats on each side of the airplane separated by a row of seats in the middle of the airplane.
  • As mentioned previously, the seats in the airplane start with single digits near the front of the airplane and increase to higher numbers (double digits) toward the rear of the airplane.
  • Row and seat numbers are usually visible (at eye level) underneath the door of the luggage space that is over every seat.
  • Row and seat numbers are often visible on the armrest of each seat.
  • If you are uncertain of the location of your seat, ask an attendant for guidance when you board the aircraft.

When you reach your seat, store your luggage in the overhead space, if available.  While flying in the U.S. you are allowed one small piece of carry-on luggage  and one personal item such as a purse or briefcase.

  • One item should be stored in the overhead compartment and the other beneath the seat in front of you.
  • If the space over your seat is full, you will have to store your belongings either somewhere else on the plane or beneath the seat in front of you.
  • The space underneath your seat is for the belongings (or feet) of the passenger seated behind you.
  • If you have a bulkhead seat (a seat with a partition rather than a seat in front of you,) you will not have any storage space on the floor and will have to store all of your belongings overhead during takeoff and landing.

Many airlines provide pillows and blankets. It you want to use them, look to see if they have been placed on seats or in the pocket on seat backs. If not there, they will be stored in one of the overhead luggage compartments. Find what you need before you are seated and carry it to your seat.

You will help the flow of boarding if you are organized.

  • If you will want a book or other material during your flight, place it so that it is easily accessible in your “carry-on”.
  • When you arrive at your seat,  place the object under the seat in front of you or in the pocket on the back of the seat that you are facing before you store your carryon.
  • Take your seat, put-on your seat belt, sit back, and relax, as you are now ready to depart.


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