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United is testing a new boarding group process

by on Thu October 22, 2015 • 23 Comments


With new management in place, United spent the last several weeks listening closely to a barrage of feedback from its fliers and employees.

The airline hopes to announce several passenger facing changes in the coming weeks, and one of them is “addressing the boarding process.”

On its earnings call today management said it will test changes to the boarding process beginning this week at Chicago O’Hare Gate B8, though no details about the changes to the process were revealed.

United currently boards planes with 5 groups, a process in place for about two years.

And there’s an unpublished boarding of top tier Global Service fliers and uniformed military personnel just before Group 1. But families who need extra help aren’t offered early boarding. That’s after a round of about 3 changes in the course of a year during the early part of the merger.

United's current boarding process

United’s current boarding process

For comparison, Delta boards its flights like this:

  • Premium: Premium cabin and Diamond level fliers
  • SKY: Platinum, Gold level fliers, Economy Comfort fliers
  • Zone 1: American Express Delta SkyMiles credit card holders and Silver level fliers
  • Zone 2: Main Cabin
  • Zone 3: Basic Economy

It’s also five zones, with unpublished boarding of uniformed military and families with strollers or car seats.

American is even more complicated:

  • First Class and uniformed military
  • Executive Platinum and Platinum level fliers (and Business Class on international flights)
  • AAdvantage Gold level fliers
  • AAirpass and Group 1 paid priority boarding / AAdvantage credit card holders
  • Group 2 – Economy Class
  • Group 3 – Economy Class
  • Group 4 – Economy Class

So while United’s boarding process is confusing, it doesn’t look any more or less confusing than its peers.

What could change?

United has been emphatic about giving its employees the tools it needs to succeed.

Our guess is United’s agents are saying the boarding process is too cumbersome to get planes out on time, and they want something simpler.

  • United could consolidate the Economy boarding groups to one or two from three currently.
  • It could also answer complaints from 1K fliers that Group 1 is too large, and move Platinum level fliers down to Group 2.
  • It’s unlikely Chase credit card holders are moving down the totem pole unless something was worked into the recent renewal of its agreement with Chase.
  • It could ditch the signs and lanes for each and every boarding group, which encourage lining up well ahead of boarding rather than sitting, relaxing and waiting for your turn to be called.
  • It could also better enforce carry on bags so there are fewer delays waiting for passengers to gate check bags when overhead bins are full.
  • And it could offer families who need help with strollers and car seats a chance to board early again.

Either way, more change is on the way. No change will make everyone 100% happy with all the constituents involved in boarding priority, but if United can break other airlines out of the mold that’s become a parody of itself we’ll call it a win.

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23 thoughts on United is testing a new boarding group process

  1. M. Clements

    So, if I need to have an aisle seat, I probably won’t get any overhead bin space. This is a terrible plan. I think it should be first come first served. Unless in First class. They pay a premium and should board first.

  2. SNOOP

    At the end of the day, thats after all delays have been figured into the hassle of air travel, I think people are just interested in boarding the aircraft quickly. The people who have posted comments have either snickered at the elites and the elites feel entitled to pre boarding which I agree with. For most of them flying is part of there work day, and for them sitting down and pulling out paper work is important to be productive.

    In my opinion as a 1K guy who only flies domestic and will do over a 100 segments, what does any of this stuff even matter. It’s all crap. Getting and upgrade is almost a thing of the past. Using your global or regional upgrades is a game I don’t wish to play. SO WHATS LEFT???. Can anyone answer that?

    So, I almost forgot about the topic ” boarding” I don’t care when I board as long as I get an over head bin space above or near or even close or even on the same plane. I paid for a premium ticket and I think it should come with a bin, its that simple.

    Second, I’m old, I don’t wish to line up forty minutes in advance and stand around with my knees hurting , and more then that I hate blocking other travelers who need to pass my gate to continue to theres. At some airports the boarding process blocks the entire concourse.

    The bottom line is that United doesn’t care about you. What they care about is transporting millions of people safely. Unless there is some financial gain to another way to board, nothing will change in the near future.

  3. Mr. Shoosh

    I don’t understand why this is rocket science. It seems pretty simple to me…load the plane the exact opposite of the way you unload it. Start from the back and work forward. To heck with these people that feel entitled. What’s more important??? Getting out of the gate fast and on time or sitting with your glass of champagne in First Class watching everyone give you the stink eye that struggles past??? As a frequent flyer I would much prefer to let everyone board first so I can move into my First Class seat, sit and go.


      @Shoosh – Nothing more luxurious and empowering in air travel than boarding at the very end, sitting down, and having the plane pull back from the gate. It’s the overhead bin space they need a solution for.

  4. audra

    Just flew back first class from paris to dc and was disappointed that i had to stand at the end of a very long line of group 1 flyers when i was one of less than 10 passengers in the first class section. we should have boarded first. also, when deplaning we had to shove our way out with economy passengers coming from the opposite direction to the plane exit. first class should have been deplaned first.

  5. Jenny

    I know that employees have been flying in group 2. Has that changed recently? I stood in a group 1 line today that doubled the size of the group 2 line, and the line was FULL of employees. I saw A LOT of crew badges in line. I’m actually paying for this premium ticket, and I do not appreciate what appears to be this new change at all. At least the flight attendants still bothered to get drinks for first. On recent flights I’ve been on in just the last couple of weeks, they were preoccupied with their phones and didn’t bother with the preflight drink.


      @Jenny – Interesting – not that we’re aware of. The flight attendants did get a new contract recently, so maybe that was part of the change.

  6. #IFlyAlaska

    I prefer Alaska Air when possible but a new job has me flying UAL all too often. Not only is the Group 1-5 boarding process just simply dumb, it blocks off the width of entire terminals in many cases. As I write this, I’m 10 mins into a 20 min wait in the Group 2 line at DEN where the line is so long everyone from solo passengers to wheerchairs and airport passenger cars have to ask to traverse through the line to get from one gate to another. How/why do the airports let UA get away with such a disruption?

  7. Lois

    I travel bi-weekly and avoid United if at all possible. Unlike American, It does not matter how many air miles you have to determine boarding groups. I always wind up in Boarding Group 5 and then forced to check my bag. Just boarded a United flight and they are trying to figure out why the have too many flight attendants assigned to this flight. Disorganized and horrible boarding procedures.

  8. Victoria

    My family has traveled many miles and I have never had the problems that I had with United. We were waiting our turn and our line was moving. We were stopped because people just sitting there that should have boarded before us wanted to get on. The ticket clerk was a nasty little human because I gave her a sarcastic thanks I was almost taken off the flight chased me down asking me if we had a problem. I said no just wanted to get on to help my daughter with her cranky 6 week old baby. Staff was nasty the rest of the trip didn’t say a word to any of them. Needless to say we will never fly United again. I must say the luggage check outside were the best.

  9. Hilary

    I fly United Coach about once a month, usually cross country. I am always Group 5. Bins are usually full by the time I board. It drives me crazy. Does anyone know how to move up to Group 3 or 4? Thanks.

  10. John R. Cordner

    The article makes reference to a group that will have boarding preference “…just before Group 1…” If United wants to do this it should, then, create SIX boarding priorities, not five. It’s all well and good that military personnel, on active duty, and “ultra” frequent fliers, should get top preference in boarding. But hiding this preference causes, at the gate, the very problems United wants to avoid.

  11. captain

    My wife and I are both 1Ks and only fly domestically in paid first class. United forcing us to board at the same time as elites flying coach got us trying other airlines and we rarely use United for domestic travel any longer. I’d say that was about $10K of the $25K we each spent on United airfares in previous years, so United has lost $20K of annual business from us due to their stupid boarding procedures. Coupled with the terrible attitude of the majority of their flight attendants, United makes it very clear they do not care about their high-revenue passengers..

    1. Bobo

      That’s too bad. I see you wealthy people just can’t wait in line near the common people like us. Yes, the people that can barely afford a coach ticket to see our family. I bet we make you vomit don’t we.

      I can see you complaint about service. But boy, complaint about waiting in line with the common people just make you feel so special huh.

      The proper way to board an airplane is by the back of the plane first, no matter of status. It’s about efficiency.

      1. AirBoss

        Thank you Bobo, I wanted to type the same thing then saw you beat me to it!

        What a prick. I wouldn’t want to foul his air with my commoner breath. Maybe he should man up and buy a private jet, until then he’s just another slob flying a common carrier.

  12. Will

    I have been through all the boarding processes. The first thing they all need to get rid is un-numbered groups. American’s is even more complex than you show because they throw in OneWorld elites. United also has Global Services before the numbered groups. The easy fix is give everyone a group number and leave it at that.

    The best solution is an evolution of what Southwest does. Ironically, Southwest boards fastest, but has the least efficient approach. I think it’s well established that the optimal boarding order is outside (windows) in, back to front. Since Southwest doesn’t have assigned seats, it effectively works inside (aisles) out, front to back. The other airlines have the seat assignments, so they could do optimal. Group A could be the higher elites with numbers ordered outside in and back to front. Group B would be lower elites numbered in the same fashion. Then groups C+ could be your non-elites numbered similarly. This would allow the elites to grab all the overhead space they needed and feel elite because they board first. It would also avoid the congestion that’s created by the lower groups lining up early to try to get overhead space or be the first to jump in when their group is called.


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