Welcome to another episode of “fun facts”. As I am nearing my third run-in with airline travel in the last couple of months, the question came to mind as to why aircraft are boarded from the left hand side. One of the things I love, besides gear, cages, and bdsm, is historical trivia, and I’m fascinated by why things are the way they are. As there has not been much going on in the kink world, I thought it might be fun to take a little historical journey (cue music and special effects)
The reason we board from the left has almost nothing to do with aviation, but everything to do with maritime navigation (and one airline, we’ll get to that). First though, you need to be familiar with some nautical jargon. The right side of a ship (when facing towards the front) is the starboard side. The left side is the port side. Got it? Excellent.
The term starboard derives from the Old English steorbord, meaning the side on which the ship is steered. Before ships had rudders on their centerlines, they were steered with a steering oar at the stern of the ship on the right hand side of the ship, because more people are right handed.
So, back before centerline rudders, ships were steered from the right and docked (or went into port) on the left, hence “port side”. Once centerline rudders were developed (Han dynasty in China, but didn’t appear in the west until the end of the Middle Ages), ships could dock on either side, but the terms port and starboard stuck. If you’ve ever taken a ship or a cruise, you know you’re just as likely to board from the right as the left. It just depends on which side is easier to get to the dock.
Even though the terms have stuck, there’s no real reason to board an aircraft on the left. All early aircraft had few seats and fewer amenities. Enter Pan American and their great Clipper flying boats. The first airline to offer transoceanic commercial service, Pan Am adopted nautical terms and nautical uniforms (that’s why even today your pilot looks like he’s wearing a naval uniform). Technically, a flying boat is an aircraft, even in the water, but Pan Am adopted naval tradition and always boarded their Clippers from the port side. Following WW2 and the disappearance of the flying boats, the tradition stuck.
It makes sense to board an aircraft from one side and service and load cargo from the other. This is both safer for all involved and far more efficient. However, there’s no real reason that the passengers board on the left and the caterers and cargo board from the right. It’s just tradition, thanks to Pan Am. Airplanes are designed for this. The galleys are always on the right near the doors and the passenger entrance is always on the left. Trillions of dollars of aircraft, airports, jet bridges, and gates have all been designed around boarding on the left, and it all has to do with early helmsmen being predominantly right handed. Kinda cool, no?
Hope you enjoyed reading this. Be well,