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That chill music when you board a flight? There’s a reason for it.

You may not have noticed that calming music when finding your seat, and that’s the point

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
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David Scotland knows the power of a good playlist. The self-described “audiophile” has a massive Spotify library and relishes curating music for a dinner party or adding to his Sunday morning mix.

“I just love creating different playlists for different moods,” said Scotland.

When Scotland hears a new track he likes, he takes a screenshot on his phone. But he’s not just keeping a record for himself: He is the principal in-flight entertainment and connectivity product manager for Alaska Airlines, and he passes his find along to a partner Alaska works with to build playlists for the carrier. “I send it to the agency and say ‘Another one like this please,’ or ‘Find something similar,’” he said.

Like at a dinner party, airline boarding music can help set a mood. From glorified elevator music to high-octane pop songs to lush orchestral compositions, carriers use a variety of sounds to welcome passengers.

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The music serves multiple functions, including to ease harried travelers amid crowding in the aisle and the search for overhead bin space. “When you think of some of the better airline boarding music out there, I think it really creates a calming effect during boarding, and I think that’s a net positive,” said Ben Schlappig, founder of travel and rewards blog One Mile At a Time.

Carriers may also use the music to give passengers “some sense of place,” as Schlappig put it, regarding where the airline is based, and create brand recognition. Qatar Airways, for instance, has featured the work of Qatari musician Dana Al Fardan.

“I tend to think that’s pretty powerful, and it’s memorable,” he said.

Scotland said he avoids techno pop, Top 40 songs and classical music, instead seeking out “indie songs from a variety of genres” that align with Alaska Airlines’ brand identity. The carrier changes its music every other month. Playlists generally run from 8 to 12 songs, and the airline plays a special holiday edition in December.

Scotland says he and entertainment and media agency Spafax work together to pick music throughout the year with various factors in mind, including seasonality — the airline plays more “chill” songs in the winter, with more upbeat selections for summer — and what best fits the space.

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“It can’t have too many pauses in it, it can’t get too quiet or too loud. … We never want the music to take center stage at any time during the boarding process,” Scotland said. “We don’t want it to be a distraction. It needs to complement what’s going on in the aircraft environment.”

The songs also can’t be too repetitive, both from playlist to playlist and within the same ones, for the sake of employees who hear the songs again and again. “There’s been several instances in the past where there have been chorus lines that are a little bit too repetitive, and flight attendants get extremely annoyed at that,” he said.

Schlappig estimated that around 25 percent of airlines have consistent music they play during boarding, and less than half have any soundtrack or boarding music. But Shashank Nigam, founder and CEO of SimpliFlying, said 100 percent of the Top 10 airlines in the world use it. “Ultimately, the brand wants to own as many senses as possible, and sound is an easy one,” he said.

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Alisa Onishi, director of brand and community and cultural relations for Hawaiian Airlines, said in an email that the airline has featured Hawaiian music as part of boarding for decades, updating it roughly every three to five years.

“With the Hawaiian music playing in the background they are automatically feeling the aloha spirit and getting ready for their trip to Hawaii or letting them hang on to the last few hours of their Hawaii vacation as they head home.”

Madeline Martin, a spokesperson for United Airlines, said in an email that the carrier introduced more curated boarding and deplaning music on select planes with the needed hardware in 2018 — around one third of its fleet.

Peter Knapp, an airline branding expert and group chairman at Landor & Fitch, said he believes more airlines are recognizing the potential power of boarding music. “I think it’s being realized that it is a tool that can create a memory, a resonance with the brand and the point of origin,” he said.

Australia-based Qantas capitalized on that sense-memory connection by making its “signature soundtrack” available on Spotify and Apple Music last year for travelers stuck at home during the pandemic, along with flight-themed virtual-meeting backgrounds.

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“Our customers tell us they miss flying as much as getting to the destination itself and this sensory experience will help fill the temporary void while some of us can’t fly because of border closures,” Qantas Group chief customer officer Stephanie Tully said in a news release at the time.

Still, many airlines direct their energy elsewhere. “Unfortunately, overall the airline industry is a race to the bottom, so often it’s not a function of, ‘Do we not think it’s worth it [to invest in boarding music]?’” Schlappig said. “It’s that they don’t even care, because the priority is, ‘How many seats can we cram in,’ and they don’t think that people are making purchase decisions on the little details that add up.”

He said passengers are most likely to find boarding music on full-service global airlines. Nigam echoed that, noting that typically “you wouldn’t expect boarding music on an ultra-low-cost airline” such as Frontier or Spirit. Jennifer De La Cruz, a spokesperson for Frontier, said by email that the carrier does not play boarding music, while Spirit did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Whether an airline accomplishes its goal with its boarding music might depend on the traveler; what elicits nodding and foot-tapping in one passenger may prompt another to get their headphones out early. As Knapp noted: “Music’s hugely subjective.”

And while travelers might hear songs at other points during air travel, such as when they deplane or in the airport lounges, the music playing as they board comes at a particularly important point. “We believe that boarding music sets the tone for the flight,” Hawaiian’s Onishi said.

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