Me first! How passengers are cheating their way onto the plane faster

In the mad rush to get on the plane first, things are getting even madder.

Passengers are finding new – and not necessarily ethical – ways of accessing their seats before everyone else. There's no prize for being first to board a plane, but lately, it sure seems that way.

I saw it recently while I was getting on a flight from Montevideo, Uruguay, to São Paulo. A man with a cane cut to the front of the line, exclaiming, "I have a cane!"

The other passengers yielded, but some of them grumbled that he should have just waited his turn.I wondered why he hadn't preboarded with the other passengers with disabilities.

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Sometimes, a walking stick isn't convincing, so passengers who want to board early order a wheelchair. David Kazarian, a retired pharmacist from Tampa, Florida, has seen them roll onto the plane early and then walk off the aircraft unassisted after they land.

"It's a miracle," he said.

Come on. If there ever was a time to stick to your boarding group, it's now. Flights will be operating at capacity this spring and summer. Pushing to the front of the line just creates delays. So maybe this is the right time to review what is – and isn't – allowed when it comes to boarding a flight early.

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Why do passengers want to board early?

There are two main reasons travelers want to get on the plane first. Some are excited for their trip to start, and they're anxious to get into their seats.

"Maybe they feel they'll get there faster if they get on the plane sooner," said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University.

Passengers are also worried they won't have enough room in the overhead bins for their carry-ons – which is a legitimate concern.

As airlines have raised their checked luggage fees, more passengers have tried to bring all their earthly belongings on the plane. And the overhead bins are first-come, first-served.

So you have an irrational fear and a rational concern, both conspiring to create a stampede to board first. And it's gotten bad.

Who gets early boarding privileges?

The problem with trying to board early is that there's almost always a long line of people ahead of you. Even an 18th-century French aristocrat might have a hard time keeping up with this list:

Elite members of airline loyalty programs. If your card is the color of precious metal, you'll be among the first to get on the aircraft. Sometimes, there's even a red carpet for you to walk across. You also get to board first if you're a partner airline loyalty program member, although you may be slightly lower in the pecking order.

Families with young children. If you have young kids, especially kids in a stroller, you can board early, too – usually after the elites.

First responders and military personnel. Thank you for your service.

People with disabilities. If you're in a wheelchair, have mobility problems, or need extra time to get on the plane, you get priority.

Premium credit card holders: Some credit cards offer early boarding privileges as a benefit.

VIPs. If you're a celebrity or a high-ranking diplomat, you may get to board before everyone else and get off the plane first too. I experienced a delay once after a minister and his family were let off the aircraft before anyone else.

Airlines know you want to be first to board, so they sometimes sell early boarding privileges. Perhaps the most famous is Southwest Airlines' EarlyBird Check-In, which starts at $15 and depends on the length of your flight.

So, of course, passengers are trying to get ahead of the crowd.

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How are people boarding faster now?

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Cutting in line: On smaller regional flights where there are often fewer gate agents, many passengers just go to the front of the line – whether they're allowed to or not. "Pushing, shoving, or attempting to cut in line can disrupt the boarding process," explained Carla Bevins, who teaches business management communication at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. "And it is disrespectful."

Disability fakers: They've always been there, but they're becoming much more common. Steve Gregory, a radio host from Los Angeles, knows someone who carries an inflatable splint to get early boarding privileges.

Wrong group: Some passengers don't care if their boarding group hasn't been called and line up anyway. I've seen this too. Boarding group 3 will be lined up, and a few 4s will try to sneak on early. The gate agents don't seem to care – they're more concerned with getting an on-time departure.

Boarding cheats: People will do anything to get to the front of the line. The jetway has now become a passing lane, where passengers eager to get on the aircraft first are sprinting ahead of others. Oh, and while we're on the topic of boarding cheats, how about the guy who pays to board in Group A on Southwest and then "reserves" seats for the rest of his party? (Southwest says it's OK, but it just doesn't feel right to some passengers.)

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Cutting in line is wrong

I should not have to say this, but here it goes: Cutting in line is wrong.

"There's really no reason for you to try to get on the plane first," said etiquette expert Adeodata Czink.

But I'm not mad at you. The airlines did this. They're trying to profit from your fear of being forced to check your carry-on bag or even your fear of missing the flight altogether. And they've also managed to create a class of entitled passengers who think they deserve to be first on the plane.

But no one deserves any such thing. Your airline ticket is a guarantee to transport you to your destination. It's not a reason to lie, cheat, or fake a limp.

Of course, getting on the plane is only half the problem. Who deserves to get off the plane first? But that's another story.

Elliott's early boarding tips

Need to get on the plane first? Here are some ethical ways of doing it:

Ask. Instead of brandishing a cane, or an emotional support dog, simply ask the passengers standing in line if you can go first. (Note: You will have to have a good reason, like, "My family is in the group ahead of us.")

Buy a seat in first class. If you absolutely must get on the plane first, buy a seat in first class or business class. You will get on the aircraft early and there will be plenty of room for your carry-on bag.

Join a loyalty program. As much as it pains me to write this, you can join a loyalty program and get on the plane sooner. But bear in mind that it's exactly what the airlines want you to do – they want your unquestioning loyalty and all of your personal information so they can market to you long after you're dead.

Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Early boarding madness: Cutting the line is becoming the norm