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.

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."

In other words, those passengers without carry-ons, who board first, can still tote laptops aboard, or a big purse or even a backpack. Lunardini said personal items "are usually easily and quickly stowed or put under seats." Understood, but what if the owner decides to put the personal item in a bin? Doesn't that take up time and block the aisle and defeat the purpose? If not, will there be bin police? Or am I just looking for something to worry about?

I guess this is where I have to trot out the old cliché about having to wait and see -- and I want to be clear that I give Virgin America a lot of credit for working on this issue.

Meantime, did you know someone actually did a scientific study on the best way to board an airline? And not just anyone: the 2008 study was conducted by an actual physicist -- an astrophysicist to be precise -- one Jason Steffen, of the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics in Batavia, Ill.

In his simulations, Steffen quickly discarded the old "board front-to-back" procedure as the worst method, but he also discovered that the "board back-to-front" method is nearly as slow. A much quicker and practical method: Random boarding. That's right: completely random boarding.

Steffen told me he's not convinced that the Virgin America model will create a significant change in the boarding process, but he adds, "I believe that experimentation is always a good thing." He also notes that factoring in passenger psychology adds a whole other dimension, along the lines of "if that's how the airline wants to play it, then maybe I will check a bag" which could speed up the boarding time.

Steffen is not sure his ideas will go anywhere: "I doubt that when an airline company needs to study an issue like this one, that their first thought is, 'Let's go talk to a physicist.'"

But maybe they should. Meanwhile, let's see what happens with Virgin America's big boarding adventure.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.