You are not alone when feeling like airlines are constantly reinventing the boarding process. Groups, zones, lanes, and…why does everyone seem to have priority boarding?
While the basic design of an airplane has not changed in well over half a century, airlines are still tinkering with the most basic aspect of the travel experience: boarding. American was the last airline to overhaul its process, splitting passengers into nine boarding groups last year.
United is the latest to make changes, saying it’s responding to customer feedback:
“Our customers have told us they want a better experience when boarding, so we’re working to improve the process by introducing a new boarding method at various airports across our network.”
This February, United started testing a new boarding process at its Los Angeles hub. The experiment has since expanded to Houston Intercontinental and Chicago O’Hare. New, simplified signage has just two lanes: Group 1 and Group 2. There will still be five groups, but Group 3, 4 and 5 will remain seated until called. The signs have also been updated to include green and drop the midnight blue and yellow palette; they certainly look and feel more contemporary.
“Please Stay Seated”
In theory, the changes benefit customers in Group 3 (window seats), Group 4 (middle and aisle seats) and Group 5 (basic economy), as they will not need to line up early in their assigned lane. The new process should also help reduce crowding in the gate area. Premier members, first class, credit card holders and their entourage, cousins, and friends will still “priority” board in Groups 1 and 2. Preboarding will include unaccompanied minors, customers with disabilities, military, families with small children, and Global Services.
How Hard Can This Be?
Five years ago, United introduced the current boarding groups with corresponding lanes. New variables, namely credit cards, added complexity and extended priority boarding to even more customers. The MileagePlus Explorer Card and Club Card are advertised to include priority boarding (Group 2), regardless of status or seat assignment. Basic economy was later introduced, automatically defaulting to Group 5.
I’ve been on flights, usually hub-to-hub, where it feels like the entire plane boards in Group 1 or Group 2. There’s nothing “priority” about boarding behind fifty people, but it seems everyone has an invite to the “special lane”. People often lineup before the inbound aircraft has even arrived in an effort to be first (or 10th) to board in their assigned group.
A few years ago, automated boarding lanes like the one seen here at Boston Logan seemed to be the new trend. Lufthansa uses similar technology.
The Best Change Might Be Communication
While the latest experiment is hardly an overhaul, the cosmetic changes are noteworthy. United also announced improved (simplified) digital displays around gate areas. I’ve always appreciated United’s bonanza of information, everything from upgrade lists to aircraft information and even an advertisement for its snack boxes. As the app evolved to include most of the same information, displaying upgrade lists became redundant. Who needs to see all 37 people who didn’t get upgraded?
Kudos to United for refreshing the displays and simplifying the content to focus on boarding. Cosmetic changes like the new color palette are also a welcome change.
Fix The Root Cause, Not the Symptoms
The new process will hopefully reduce crowding at the gate, but it does not address the main issue with boarding: boarding early to find overhead bin space.
On full flights, gate agents make numerous announcements asking for volunteers to gate-check their bags. Onboard, flight attendants scramble before the door closes to find the last remaining inch of space in an already-closed (and full) overhead bin. The entire process feels unnecessarily stressful.
Bags are the bottleneck, and simplified lanes will not fix that issue.
While many travelers loathe Southwest’s “cattle car” boarding process, it is undoubtedly among the industry’s most efficient. Love or hate the open seating policy, anyone who has flown Southwest knows the alphanumeric (A1-30, A31-60, etc.) system is simple, efficient, and fast.
Overhead Bins Are Expanding
Legroom is getting tighter and lavatories smaller, but overhead bins are actually expanding. United refurbished its entire fleet of Airbus A319 and A320 to include larger bins; regional jets like the Embraer E175 can accommodate full-size bags; and newer Boeing 737s have Dreamliner-style bins, for example.
One notable exception is the Boeing 777. Shout-out to reader @Geoff Arnold for pointing out the “densification” of 777s from 3-3-3 to 3-4-3 configurations will undoubedtly cause more headaches.
While there is more room for bags on most new and reconfigured planes, too many passengers are still trying to skirt checked bag fees.
If bin space remained available throughout the boarding process, boarding last could be the newest elite perk. After all, someone who flies 100,000 miles a year is probably not in a rush to spend even more time on a plane.