Thoughts on the New AA Boarding Process (as a Platinum)

BACKGROUND

Back in March of this year, American Airlines overhauled their boarding procedure, presumably in an effort to make the boarding process less complicated and to reduce congestion and delays with boarding. Prior to the changes, the boarding order was:

  • (Preboarding of Concierge Key and passengers needing extra time)
  • First Class and Uniformed U.S. Military
  • Executive Platinum, Platinum, oneworld Emerald, oneworld Sapphire
  • Gold, oneworld Ruby
  • Group 1 (those who had purchased Main Cabin Extra and AA credit card holders), AAirpass, Priority (those who had purchased Priority Access and Alaska elites)
  • Group 2
  • Group 3
  • Group 4

The multiple groups before Group 1 who all had “Priority” printed on their boarding passes caused quite a bit of confusion, to both infrequent fliers and, surprisingly, some frequent fliers. In addition, the boarding order was only variably enforced (and more often than not it was enforced at all). Rarely did I encounter gate agents who went out of their way to strictly enforce the boarding order, but for those who did I always made to sure to take a minute to thank them and give them an AApplause certificate while boarding. Even on flights where the order was relatively well-enforced, crowding, gate lice, and not-so-infrequent line cutters were ubiquitous. As someone who appreciates rules and order (perhaps a bit too much), I’ll admit that I became a bit obsessive about the proper boarding order and often found myself trying to catch glimpses of other passengers’ boarding passes to see if they were boarding out of order.

NEW BOARDING ORDER

In its never-ending quest for “D0”, American decided to revamp the boarding order a few months ago, replacing the old process with a newer, ostensibly more simple process. Notably, every passenger (except Concierge Key members) under the new boarding order has a group number, which eliminates the confusion of an ambiguous and sizable “Priority” group that boards before Group 1. This also supposedly makes it easier for gate agents to spot those who are boarding out of order. Timed to coincide with a number of other changes AA recently made, the new boarding order also includes a Group 9 for Basic Economy ticket holders that doesn’t allow for carry-ons, as well as the actual consistent announcement of Concierge Key as a distinct boarding group, rather than occasional announcement or paging by name to the gate as was done previously:

  • Concierge Key
  • Group 1: first class, active US military with ID
  • Group 2: Executive Platinum, oneworld Emerald
  • Group 3: Platinum Pro, Platinum, oneworld Sapphire
  • Group 4: Gold, oneworld Ruby, Alaska elites, AirPass, Premium Economy, Citi Executive ($495 AF) cardholders, those who purchased Priority Access
  • Group 5: Other AA credit card holders, those who purchased Main Cabin Extra, certain corporate travelers whose companies have travel agreements with AA
  • Group 6
  • Group 7
  • Group 8
  • Group 9: Basic Economy, no carry-ons allowed (unless passenger has status or an AA credit card)

The new process was announced several weeks prior to its implementation, and at first it seemed promising. With every passenger having a group number rather than having a large and convoluted “Priority group” that had credit card holders waving their Citi AA “Platinum” card trying to push hrough the EXP/PLT boarding line, it seemed like maybe the boarding order would be a bit more, well, orderly.

NEW IS ALWAYS BETTER?

So now that we’re a couple months into the new boarding process, has anything changed?

In short, no. I’ll preface all of this by noting that 1) what I’ve observed is of course the subjective experience of one person, 2) I’m fortunate enough to generally be able to avoid flying during peak days and times (where, potentially, there are more elites who understand and follow the correct order), and 3) as a Platinum I board with Group 3 and have not seen the whole process from start to end more than a few times. That said, in the 20 or so AA flights I’ve taken since the new boarding process was implemented, I’d venture to say that there have not been any significant improvements to boarding from the passenger standpoint, particularly from the perspective of elites.

The gate area before boarding is still largely a zoo and, in my subjective estimation, there is no significant difference in the amount or frequency of crowding around the boarding lines with the new process. Passengers in both the priority and non-priority lines continue to line up far in advance of boarding and clog up the gate area.

Gate crowding, 15 minutes before boarding, 5 minutes before first gate agent announcement

The plane’s not leaving without you!

Aggravatingly — the new boarding process has not alleviated my obsessiveness/nosiness and I continue to creep on other passengers’ boarding passes — people are still boarding out of order as well. I have noticed, however, that gate agents seem to be a bit better at enforcing the boarding order and I have seen a higher rate of people have to do the walk of shame after getting caught trying to board early.

“Group 1”, on a flight that ultimately had 7/16 F seats filled

“Group 1”, on a flight with 4 F seats filled

SUMMARY

There’s been plenty of discussion on how to optimize/improve boarding processes and I won’t dwell on that here. Ultimately it seems that AA’s new boarding procedure hasn’t improved much. However, one change I have noticed is that boarding seems to be a bit smoother at smaller outstations with fewer elites (compared to the old boarding process). Smaller planes of course mean fewer passengers and less chaos so that’s not really an earth-shattering observation.

While the implementation of a new, simpler boarding process is perhaps a step in the right direction, poor enforcement by gate agents (who, understandably, have more pressing concerns during boarding than enforcing the boarding order) has resulted in no significant change from the old boarding process. With passengers 1) bringing on ever-increasing amounts of carry-on luggage and 2) seemingly paying less and less attention (to announcements, their own boarding passes, people around them, etc…) at the airport, I can’t imagine that crowding around boarding gates will get better anytime soon. While this issue is of course not limited to American (though United and Delta seem to have made some headway against crowding with automated boarding gates), it is one that AA likely won’t be addressing again anytime soon.

 

Please feel free to chime with observations and experiences of the new AA boarding process.

 

Comments

  1. As a weekly AA flier who still only has platinum status, my experience has been similar, although I’ve seen quite a few folks turned away attempting to board early. Gate crowding is just maddening, as I usually lob about 3 or 4 “excuse me”s while squeezing past to board. The question is, how does gate crowding get enforced? Insist people stay seated until the group # prior to theirs is called? Hard to legislate away stupidity/inconsideration.

  2. I’ve come to appreciate the approach many airlines from other countries use, where they allow you to line up ahead of time according to your group number. Takes some space at the gate for that, and many of our airports couldn’t handle it. But it does seem to smooth out the boarding process.

  3. My wife and I with an infant were Group 5. Same as your experience, people were still crowding the lines when multiple announcements were made to stay seated until their boarding group is called. RSW and PHL seemed to make more of an effort to enforce the rule, but you just can’t control people’s mentalities. I had to make my way through with stroller and stuff. It was smooth considering the overcrowding. I did see some people do the walk of shame.

  4. A lot of people shoot down Southwest’s boarding and seating policy, but I find Southwest boarding to be a lot easier and more organized than the messes on the legacy carriers such as AA.

  5. I had a great boarding experience in CLT last weekend, where there was a visual posted highlighting what group was currently boarding. I share a number of your frustrations, however I find that very often I can’t actually hear (or understand) the announcements and find myself inching closer in an effort to understand if it is my turn to board. Since I’m also frustrated by people crowding the boarding area, this leaves me either far afield and unable to board with my group, or becoming one of the crowders. I wish the graphics were displayed more often, as it seemed to be effective in this instance.

  6. My observations are these:

    1. Fireigners don’t know procedures and have very different understandings of how boarding works as it is different all over the world.

    2. Much of the crowd by the gates is due to insufficient seats by the gates, forcing people to stand while they wait and if you’re standing, you may as well stand by your gate.

    3. Every airline has different procedures (which they don’t announce or display well) and enforce differently, creating confusion for those who aren’t frequent flyers.

    4. Frequent flyers are usually lined up first because they know they can cheat the system and because the staff doesn’t want to piss if Gold, Platinum and other level flyers just because they are out of line.

    5. Finally, the quest group are corporate travelers. They know they need to board first to put away their carry-on clisest to the exit and they are almost always arrogant enough not to care about a single soul in that Airport or on that aircraft. Almost without exception, the worst behaved gate lice are the “semi-pros” in suits and khakis.

    If American continues to consistently enforce the rule, it will catch on, eventually. If they enforce like they used to with the old rule, it will be like it used to.

  7. I think one factor not mentioned that contributes to the crowding the gate area early is GA’s are not sticking to the published boarding times & are instead boarding early, likely in pursuit of that elusive D0 mentioned in the article.

  8. If you asked someone to come up with the most stupid boarding procedure they could imagine, do you think they would go as far as 9 boarding groups????

    Most of those groups will take longer to announce than to board the people in them!

  9. Boarding processes have been tested and tested and tested. There is no “best” way. The best way, is to use ANY of the methods but have people actually FOLLOW DIRECTIONS and board when they are supposed to. Back to front, zones from back and window to front aisle, by row, doesn’t matter, if you have people who try to game the system it will always result in a slower process than necessary. Until you can get that percentage of humans who think they are better/more important/who’s time is more important, to stop acting like clowns, the process will never be optimal.

  10. I’m an Executive Platinum and just recently returned from an trip to and from Shanghai to Chicago. Going I flew in Business class and all flights and flew direct to Shanghai and return I flew over Tokyo.

    As per my prior experience, in Asia on AA flights there is an extreme amount of crowding at the gate and it seemed about the same as previous. I did see some people turned back when they tried to board with Group 2. However I did notice both in Shanghai and in Tokyo that the agents were allowing many families with young children to preboard with the other special assistance individuals.

  11. As a Gold I’ve seen it improve slightly overall but as a Gold I’m still mad as I was demoted to credit card holder level. I know this seems minor. The new process is better but now they need to fix the gate sizes and boarding lane problems.

    • You are 4, most cc holders are 5. Of course I just turned gold and being bumped from 5 to 4 doesn’t seem like much of a boost. In fact only the top two elite platinums seem worth anything.

  12. The rush seems precipitated by more passengers than ever carrying rollaboards rather than checking. People are anxious they won’t find a space in the Overhead and will have to check their carry-on. On a recent trip to ORD from CLT, the agent announced that Group 4 and later would have to check their bags. I was in Group 5 and boarded with them. When I walked back to my seat (Row 28) , there were 6 other passengers in the rear area of the plane and every single Overhead was empty expect for a handful of luggage.

    I’ve been flying long enough to remember that airlines would fill the aircraft from the rear forward. I always thought that system worked but I have read that it is not efficient. I still fail to understand the reasoning as it is aggravating trying to make my way to rows 20+ only to have to wait for someone in Row 10 store their carry-on, backing up everyone else.

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