The problem comes from the fact that there is no queue within the queue -- that is, when a zone is called, whether you board first or last is a result of your motivation, which is why people from Zone 2 or 3 stand up and clutter the boarding area when Zone 1 is called. They want to be in the position to be one of the first people to board once their zone is announced. Since most airlines assign a seat, the overhead space is what everyone is competing for.
While the behavior is understandable, it is certainly not an enjoyable experience for anyone, especially when you have to navigate through people to even reach the gate. We've all seen the person with Zone 4 boarding that sets up shop right by the boarding lane as soon as First Class boarding begins. The result is what you see in the photo above, taken this weekend at JFK. It clogs the walkway as much as the gate.
For these reasons, we have to give it up to Southwest and its approach to boarding. If you haven't flown the airline, here's what happens: When you check in, you are assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and a boarding number (1-60), and you board the plane in that order. A1, A2, all the way to A60, then B1, B2, etc. Employees call the boarding group, and then passengers line up according to their numbers next to designated posts that tell them where to stand.
By assigning boarding numbers within the boarding groups and organizing passengers into lines, it completely eliminates the mob mentality and the need to jostle for position at the gate because everyone knows where they should stand and in what order they will board. The lines are neatly formed and arranged so that passengers aren't standing in the walkway.
United has tried to create a similar system with separate lanes for each group, but it has not yet been rolled out everywhere. We hope to see other airlines move in this direction, because it really does make a difference at the gate and in the flow of traffic in the airport. Next time you're walking through the terminal, take a look at the difference between a Southwest boarding area and one of another airline.
[Photos: Will McGough/Times Dispatch]