Who Should Get to Board the Plane First?

Quick quiz: Which seems to take longer?

A. Competing in a marathon.

B. Driving from Los Angeles to New York.

C. Boarding an airplane.

I think we all know the answer to this one is C.

Remember when getting on a plane was a breeze? It was a matter of A-List first (those regal first class passengers) followed by the B-List (the humble herd). Then families with "little ones" got in on the action (although the airlines tightened the rules a bit when they noticed more and more "little ones" were 6 feet tall and shaving). Then, as frequent flier programs gained in popularity, elite members started elbowing their way to the front of the line as well.

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The latest innovation: paying for a better spot in the queue, which even the most egalitarian airlines are trying -- et tu, Southwest?

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At the same, the twin evils of lost bags and fees for checking bags prompted more passengers to go the carry-on route, which only seemed to add to the length of the boarding process by creating bottlenecks in the aisles that resembled L.A. freeways at rush hour.

As a former administration official might have put it, "it's the bin space, stupid" -- and indeed it is. Too much time is taken trying to cram too many bags into too little space.

Is there a solution? Well, Virgin America is testing a new boarding process that some consider revolutionary -- one that old-school travelers are going to love, but the carry-on crowd may come to despise.

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The airline wants to give us a better boarding process by letting passengers without carry-ons get on first.

Virgin America has always been something of an innovator. The two-year-old airline gave us mood lighting and food service on demand and has been named "Best Domestic Airline" by Travel + Leisure's readers for two years running.

But oh, I can hear the sputtering now, but at the moment, this procedure is simply being tested at select airports. That hasn't stopped the critics, though, like Boston-based traveler Ben Haber who calls this a "sleazy move" by the airline. Haber, who typically boards with a carry-on, thinks Virgin America is clearly rewarding those who pay to check a bag, adding, "So now if I want to get on the plane first I have to pay an extra $15? That's crazy."

Au contraire, says Kevin Costa of San Diego, who usually checks his bags whether traveling for business or pleasure. Yes, he says, it is a reward for those who pay the bag fees, "as it should be."

Virgin America spokeswoman Abby Lunardini said "rewarding" people is not what this is all about. She said the testing is simply a matter of trying something new in an effort toward "making the boarding process speedier and easier for all involved."

There is a certain logic to it: those without carry-ons can get on and sit right down, allowing the bin users to then enter and duke it out over the shrinking overhead space. Face it, the bin brigade seems to take up most of the boarding time (and aisle space) as they get their luggage situated.

However, there is a potential flaw, or hole in this arrangement -- one big enough to taxi an Airbus 380 through: This new boarding arrangement doesn't count personal items as "carry-ons."

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