Episode 197: Airplane Boarding

Air Date: December 16, 2012

When boarding an airplane, boarding back-to-front is the slowest method.


To allow them to test various boarding methods, Adam and Jamie built an accurate replica of an airliner’s interior that included 173 real airplane seats as well as real overhead luggage compartments. Volunteers were staged at a simulated boarding gate and were given tickets with their seat assignments before each of the tests. To further simulate reality, 5% of the passengers were given instructions to behave problematically by going upstream, sitting in the wrong seat, boarding small children, or wasting time with folding a coat in the aisle. Professional flight attendants were also brought in to assist with the boarding process.

Each method of boarding was judged objectively on the time it took to board all of the passengers and subjectively by the passengers’ satisfaction after each boarding experience. The satisfaction score was calculated as a sum of votes wherein “great” votes earned 1 point, “neutral” votes earned 0 points, and “terrible” votes earned -1 points.

These were the results from the boarding methods that were tested:

Method Description Time Satisfaction
Back-to-front Business boarded first, then the zones were boarded starting in the back and moving to the front of the plane. 24:29 19
Random with seats Business boarded first, then all rows and all passengers were allowed to board. 17:15 12
WILMA Business boarded first, followed by all window seats, then all middle seats, then all aisle seats. 14:55 102
WILMA with blocks Business boarded first, followed by a combination of the back-to-front and WILMA methods; each zone was boarded with the WILMA method, starting in the back. 15:07 105
No assigned seats Business boarded first, then all other passengers chose their own seats. 14:07 -5
Reverse pyramid Business boarded first, followed by a sophisticated cascade of zones spreading from rear windows. 15:10 113

The back-to-front method proved to be the slowest method tested. It was noted that the fastest method (no assigned seats) ironically had the lowest satisfaction score, but there were also methods that much faster and much more satisfying (e.g. WILMA) than the back-to-front method.

A human tooth can be made into a bullet that is accurate, lethal, and undetectable after it shatters on impact.


The build team chose to test three different types of firearms in this for this myth. They obtained real human teeth from a dentist to make their bullets. Kari made bullets for a handgun (.357 Magnum revolver). She chose not to shape the teeth in order to retain the hard enamel coating. Tory made shotgun shells using crushed up teeth. Grant made bullets for a rifle. He ground and shaped the teeth in order to improve their aerodynamics and accuracy. Grant also wanted to test this myth using bone instead of teeth, so he made additional bullets from a cow femur.

To test accuracy, the bullets were fired from a rig with normal ammunition, followed by the dental ammunition. The handgun with the unshaped bullets was found to be very inaccurate so no further tests were done with it. The shotgun’s accuracy was not affected by using teeth fragments as the shot. The power of the rifle destroyed the teeth bullets before they hit the target. The bone bullets in the rifle had reduced accuracy compared to lead bullets but they still hit the target.

For testing lethality, the bullets were fired at a ballistics gel target. 4 inches (10 cm) of penetration was deemed the benchmark for a lethal hit. Normal buckshot fired from the shotgun went all the way through the target (well over 4 inches). The teeth fragments only penetrated 1.5 inches (3.8 cm). Normal bullets from the rifle went clear through the target while a large bone bullet penetrated 6 inches (15 cm).

Finally, to test detectability, the bullets were fired at pig corpses which were stuffed with organs (the butcher could not sell them containing the organs). A pathologist was invited onto the show to determine if she could detect the cause of the wounds. In each case, the pathologist was able to retrieve the bullet fragments and identify them as foreign. She was even able to reconstruct the bone rifle bullet and reveal the rifling marks on it. Because none of the bullets met all of the conditions of the premise, it was declared busted.


  1. Tomas says:

    All methods judged as better by mythbusters don’t take into account that people sitting next to each other could be related. It could be disabled person or teen and his or her guardian. You can’t separate them when boarding the plane. “wilma block” could potentially handle tied pair, but not tied triple.

    • tara says:

      sorry, are adults traveling together too scared to be separated for 10 minutes such that the WILMA method shouldn’t be used? With the exception of the special circumstances, I’m pretty sure a couple could survive for the few minutes they are apart.

      • JT says:

        Small groups traveling together should not negatively impact the results if they are seated together in this test.

        The reasons are simple – the reason that WILMA, Wilma w/ blocks, and reverse pyramid are faster in this test is because the people at the window board first. So you don’t have people standing in the aisle waiting for someone to get up from the aisle seat so they can go sit in the window. If you have the 3 person group boarding at the same time, then when they get to their 3 person row, they usually simply go in and sit down. This causes no delay. So allowing families or small groups to board together would not hurt the time.

        The problem with US based flights is that the people always have so many carry-ons for the overhead bins. This is that causes the boarding pandemonium and the delays. If you reduce the number and size of carry-on bags, they everyone could fit a bag on without a problem when people board and that delay would be reduced.

        • Shirley Dulcey says:

          So long as airlines charge for checked bags but allow carry-ons for free, further limits to carry-on bags won’t fly (sic) with the travelling public. A further problem is items that are allowed in carry-ons (notably lithium ion batteries) but forbidden in checked baggage.

  2. Dirk says:

    Exactly what I was thinking while watching the episode. They only took single travelers into account.

  3. Terrance says:

    I got so annoyed because I was thinking the same thing as the two commenters before me.

  4. Richard says:

    If there is a parent on the window seat and a child in the middle, or the other way around, there can be exception for them. Still, maybe the back-to-front is a compromised way when considering all the factors.

  5. Dick says:

    To address the first three comments, I believe they did take into account families. It wasn’t always mentioned, but they seemed to always start with business and families (or priority boarding which includes those with young children, the disabled, unaccompanied minors and the elderly), before going with their chosen method.

  6. kendall says:

    the best method may be the way southwest airlines does it. once you’re past the ticket scanner and on the gangway, it’s the same as the random no seats method, and therefore fast. but getting to the gangway is structured and well-ordered, which i believe increases passenger satisfaction. also, they don’t charge extra for the first two checked bags, so there’s less carry-on luggage to be stowed overhead.

    no, i don’t work for southwest. :) i wish mythbusters had tried their method also. it would be nice to see the comparison.

  7. Yaka says:

    It is compromised, but it is no compromise. No matter which factors you consider, back to front is the worst. You literally can’t design a method that will take longer. It’s 10 minutes longer than the fastest boardings and has satisfaction far below average.

  8. pradumn the cs lover says:

    why dont u try a piece of bone instead of tooth and the forensics think that it is their part of their body only..

    • Spookie says:

      They tried that and the forensic expert spotted it immediately. Did you not read the thing you are criticizing?

  9. napsa says:

    They didn’t take into account those people, how aren’t at the gate when it’s opens or are late. And I don’t know how long gates are open in US, but when I have traveled in Europe gates are open at least 30 minutes, so that back-to-front method doesn’t slow anything.

    • liquid says:

      Of course it slow things down. When gates open 30 minutes before flight, it means, plane has to be at place let say 90 minutes before flight (60 minutes for preparations, but this is made up number). When you cut down boarding time to 15 minutes, plane can arrive 75 minutes before flight. Now imagine the plane flying back and forth during a day. You can save hours. That means you can save money (less man-hours needed) or you can use that plane to fly one more flight per day

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  10. Nuhaantje says:

    I agree with most of you saying that traveling in groups wasn’t tested in the episode. To solve this, I came up with a solution, Big groups in the back, and single travelers in the front. A comparable method was introduced on KLM and AirFrance flight just over a year ago.
    Secondly, I don’t agree with the method that has been used on the ‘no assigned seating’ scenario. I flew with Easy Jet (a British low budget airliner) and they use this method. First of all, the use a double entrance system, where people walk over the tarmac to their air plain where they use stairs on both the front and back side of the plane. This improves time efficiency and gets rid of a lot of ‘panic’ secondly flight attendants were standing at the doors only letting a reduced amount of passengers in, again to avoid panic and improve time efficiency. by introducing an other way of structure this method can be very efficient. On all my flights with Easy Jet, boarding was finished in around 10 minutes.
    also I have to agree with @napsa (feb 27) that most airliners have plenty of time for boarding. I have worked as a ground handler. turnaround times are already very short, taking in mind that we have to unload passengers, clean the aircraft for the new passengers and board the aircraft, while at the same time unload their baggage, pump in new kerosene, and load their baggage as well as a structural examination (damage and if doors are proper locked).
    there is more work than boarding alone, so the properly confirm this mith/method, the is still a lot of work to do.

  11. M.deG says:

    I’m a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline. I think that unless we severely limit carry-on baggage – as British Airways does – the boarding mess will continue. Of course, this means that the airlines must radically improve delivery of bags to the carousels. Unless passengers are confident of speedy delivery they will not check their bags. And who can blame them? Why not allow free check-in of bags up to a certain limit and THEN charge passengers for bags in excess of that limit that are being carried on the planes? That would reduce the bag congestion on the planes and speed up boarding. I was recently on a South African Airways 747 as a passenger (no I don’t work for SAA) and the complete boarding process took 25 mins. I was the last to board and there was plenty of room for my bag. Last year I travelled as a passenger on British Airways which has a one bag policy and I was carrying one bag and a purse and I had to stop and stuff my purse into the other bag before boarding. That’s how strict they are. And it works. It’s about time the U.S. airlines adopted similar policies but frankly it won’t work unless the delivery of bags to the carousels improves remarkably and the passengers have confidence in this.

  12. Max says:

    What I still don’t get is why this episode didn’t air in the US.

    • Asami says:

      I can’t believe you had to stay for so long, but I’m rellay glad you’re on your way back home to your loved ones. I hope your flight is speedy. I need another Olivia fix! ;-)

  13. Frederick Michael says:

    May I suggest a test for more rapid deplaning?

    The way that rows normally empty one at a time is a perfect description of gridlock. If instead, the rule was to have everyone in the aisle exit without stopping, the plane would empty in half the time. After the “first flush” of the aisle, there would be room in the aisle for lots of people to be getting their bags out of the overheads.

    I really wish someone would try this.

  14. Max says:

    Seriously, why did nobody air this episode in the US?

  15. Eliza Royals says:

    Is it plausible for a braid of floss to pull the weight of two boys out of quick sand? Maybe like a 12 year old boy and a 15 year old boy?

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  17. smak says:

    You didn’t test one other method…pineapples/coconuts. We boarded a bus in Hawaii this way. One side of the bus was the pineapples, the other the coconuts. The driver would switch sides boarding and unboarding. Very effective.

  18. Roger says:

    4″ of penetration into ballistics gel does not equal 4″ of penetration into a human body. Ballistics gel as a human analog requires 13″-14″ of penetration to be considered lethal. 1 1/2″ of penetration into gel may not even break the skin. Also, the pig analog should have included clothing to be accurate.

  19. Ed says:

    I wonder how the front-to-back method of boarding would fare. That is what US Airways and American used the last 2 years I have flown. It always seemed very slow, but solved the problem in back-to-front boarding of people whose seats are in the back putting their carry-ons in a forward overhead compartment. At least front-to-back eliminates that, even if it is, as I suspect, the slowest method. But as someone pointed out earlier, they board for 30 minutes, then close the plane. Any method will easily fit in that time frame. That’s why I like to hang back and board last. It is much more comfortable to sit in the airport than on a coach seat for 30 minutes. Of course, that requires any carry-on be able to be stowed under the seat in front of you, in case there’s no overhead space left.

  20. brandon says:

    can you make a tree fly in the sky I like your show.

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  21. Tony says:

    Mythbusters… it appears that you did not test the method that Southwest Airlines uses. It would be interesting to see if their open seating method is fastest of all compared to the methods that you used.

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