United Tweaks Boarding Process (Again), but Will It Work?

by Sam Roecker

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.

Image result for United Boarding Gates Boston

Automated Boarding Lanes at Boston Logan

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.   

Another Version Tested in April

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.


United’s New Signage at Chicago O’Hare

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henry LAX June 5, 2018 - 2:01 pm

“The Best Change Might Be Communication”

if you think that’s any useful at all, i invite you to visit any boarding gate at AA or DL. absolutely no one understands “please don’t congregate until your group is called”, no matter how many times the gate agents repeat that. I don’t think that statement can get any clearer.

but fighting human behavior is a hopeless endeavor.

Sam June 5, 2018 - 2:09 pm

Hi Henry,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, it does seem people always seem to swarm the gate area. My theory is its based mostly on people wanting overhead bin space. What is your theory?

henry LAX June 5, 2018 - 3:06 pm

yup it’s all about the overhead space, but no amount of changing boarding groups can fix that

no amount of free bags will fix that either, despite what WN fans claim it’s their advantage. sometimes i’ll be on crazy tickets that entitle me to check in 3 bags of 70lbs each, and i still check it zero. i simply can’t trust airlines to actually deliver bags that aren’t lost, damaged, destroyed, or stolen (the stealing aspect is the worst because it’s completely untraceable and with no recourse)

u can’t change humans. u can only change your structure to make them conform into some resemblance of order instead of chaos. the 5-lanes UA has does. the 2-lanes of AA/DL doesn’t.

Geoff Arnold June 5, 2018 - 2:42 pm

The glaring exception to the trend of increasing overhead bin space is on United’s horrible 777s, both old and new. The bins are very small, and with the density increasing to 10 abreast, competition for bin space is extreme. I fly EWR-SFO and EWR-LAX a lot, and I try my damnedest to avoid those 777s.

Sam Roecker June 5, 2018 - 2:48 pm

Hey, Geoff! Excellent point, that plane is definitely tight. What’s your experience with the boarding process and priority groups on these elite-heavy routes?

henry LAX June 5, 2018 - 3:10 pm

777 overhead bin design hasn’t changed at all since the first delivery in 1995, across every 777 model currently in service, across every airline worldwide (boeing might have redesigned them for -8 and -9, but those aren’t here yet). you made it sound like AA or DL has larger bins on their 777.

Sam Roecker June 5, 2018 - 3:19 pm

Hi Henry,

Apologies for the confusion, I’ll clarify that in the post. I was referring specifically to United and Delta’s Airbus refurbs. I believe Geoff’s point was about “densification” of United’s 777-200 “HD” models where they changed the configuration to 3-4-3 (previously 3-3-3 and 2-5-2 way back in the day). The HD model appears on domestic runs like EWR-SFO/LAX as well as Hawaii; EWR-MAD/BCN/DUB in the summer as well. Of course, eventually, all 777s will be 3-4-3.

Geoff Arnold June 5, 2018 - 3:40 pm

I first experienced the “densified” 777 on the early domestic runs of the 773’s. (The FAs and gate staff were tearing their hair out because of the cramped aisles and inadequate bin space.) Since then I been stuck on HD 772’s a couple of times, and the experience was so unpleasant that I now make a point of booking 757’s for all my transcons. (Likewise I try to book my Transatlantic flights on 764’s.)

Yes, Henry is correct that 777 bin size is the same as it always was. It started out as inadequate, and with densification it’s got worse.

Geoff Arnold June 5, 2018 - 3:44 pm

As for the boarding process on 777’s, I’ve seen situations with 50+ in Group 1 and 75+ in Group 2. Madness….

[My personal goal for 2018 is to NOT make 1K. I started out well, but I’m not as confident as I was….]

Sam Roecker June 5, 2018 - 4:49 pm

I hear you! There has to be a better way.

Doug Parker June 5, 2018 - 9:43 pm

I am going to make boarding position a bidding process. A 737 with 175 seats will have 175 boarding positions up for bid. Bidding will open 72 hours prior to departure. Highest bid boards first, second highest bid boards second, etc. At the gate, the gate agent will call each passenger by name for boarding. That way you can all watch who outbid you as they board. All bid amounts will be confidential.


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