Boarding Process Changes Implemented on United Airlines

Passengers crowd Gate 40 in San Francisco 20 minutes before the official announcement to begin the boarding process for a Delta Air Lines flight to Atlanta. Photograph by FlyerTalk member ryandc99.

As part of an effort to address crowding and consistency over the next several months, the way passengers board on United Airlines flights has changed — with full implementation expected tomorrow — starting by simplifying and reducing the number of boarding groups, as well as eventually revising the layout of gate areas with premium bypass lanes and improved directional signage.
According to FlyerTalk member UA Insider — also known as Shannon Kelly, who is the director of customer insights at United Airlines — the following list is a brief overview of what to expect in terms of simplified boarding groups:
  • Pre-Boarding Customers with disabilities, then Global Services passengers and uniformed military personnel
  • Group 1 Global Services passengers, Premier 1K MileagePlus members, Premier Platinum MileagePlus members, and passengers seated in the premium cabin
  • Group 2 Premier Gold MileagePlus members, Star Alliance Gold members, Premier Silver MileagePlus members, Star Alliance Silver members, MileagePlus Presidential Plus pasengers and United Club cardholders, MileagePlus Explorer passengers and Awards cardholders
  • Groups 3 through 5 General boarding for remaining passengers

The reduction from seven boarding groups to five boarding groups is to give those passengers assigned to Groups 1 and 2 a less hectic experience overall through the use of dedicated lanes, better signage and bypass opportunities with access at any time.
As to why Global Services is listed twice — once for Pre-Boarding and once for Group 1 — passengers who have Global Service elite status will continue to be invited to pre-board, but their boarding passes will be printed with Group 1 in case they arrive after pre-boarding begins.
That makes no sense to me. I can understand certain customers with disabilities boarding after everyone else boards to expedite the boarding process if they arrive too late for pre-boarding, but do military personnel not have a similar invitation? After all, the proposed premium lane will act as a bypass lane for those passengers who arrive at the gate after general boarding has already commenced.
United Airlines will add more boarding lanes — in many cases, one for each boarding group. At nearly every gate, Premier Access boarding will be comprised of two separate lanes, enabling a dedicated line for groups 1 and 2 respectively.
The following is a list of some of the airports and gates where United Airlines is testing the new gate layout — in many cases, with temporary signage:

  • Chicago-O’Hare ORD B8, C16 and C18, with two additional gates expected at a later date
  • Cleveland CLE C27 and C3
  • Denver DEN B23 and B32
  • Houston IAH C40 and E2
  • Los Angeles LAX 70B and 73
  • Newark EWR C123 and C131
  • San Francisco SFO 73 and 80
  • Washington-Dulles IAD C19 and D7

As expected, many FlyerTalk members have strongly reacted to the changes, either by expressing their disdain for them, posting suggestions on different and better alternatives, or initially praising the changes — in some cases, including ways to further improve what was already started by United Airlines.
Then again — unless the boarding policies are strictly enforced, which at times can be difficult to do depending on the circumstances — these changes may be moot with the advent of passengers with low boarding priority who crowd the gate area before being called, also known as “gate lice.” Some FlyerTalk members argue that certain passengers with elite status are the worst when it comes to being “gate lice.”
When some FlyerTalk members were gate agents for several hours at the international airport in Atlanta for Delta Air Lines, the gate agents with whom they worked asked — amongst other questions — why passengers crowd around the gate area before the group to which they were assigned was announced to proceed with boarding?
Reasons cited include wanting to be aboard the aircraft as soon as possible to:

  • Get into a window seat before other passengers assigned to that row are seated
  • Enjoy a beverage before departure if seated in the premium class cabin
  • Have space in the overhead lockers to place their luggage before the aircraft — and the bins — become full
  • Not have to wait as long in the Jetway while on line to board the aircraft

Another reason could be to find an in-flight magazine where the crossword puzzle is not already partially or completely filled out by a different passenger on a previous flight, as seems to usually happen in my case.
I do realize that there needs to be some consistency in the boarding process. After all, if an airline can significantly shorten the time between which passengers leave the aircraft from a previous flight and board the aircraft for the next flight, the airline can theoretically add another flight or two in a day, meaning potentially additional revenue — and hopefully, additional profit — while keeping passengers happier.
I could be wrong, but the problem in my opinion is that different passengers have different preferences for different reasons. Some passengers prefer to board early for the aforementioned reasons cited — but not all aircraft are equipped with premium class cabins, and not every flight has the exact same services and equipment. Some passengers dislike spending more time on an airplane than necessary and will attempt to board last whenever possible. Some passengers have special requirements — one passenger with an unruly child or another passenger who cannot reach the overhead compartment with that heavy oversized bag is often enough to throw the entire boarding process into chaos. To render consistency in a process with a vehicle generally shaped like a tube — usually with only one opening and a Jetway in which to funnel the masses — is limiting at best. Even an ordinary car has two or more doors used for simultaneous entry and egress, and a bus usually has a minimum of two doors as well.
No matter how many times airlines have attempted to resolve the seemingly eternal problem of enhancing the boarding process, the improvements only seem marginal at best. Scientists have even studied the boarding process and attempted to apply algorithms to help implement a solution, but to no avail at this time — or, at least, the findings are not currently being used, for the most part. I would not be surprised if basic human nature was the inhibiting factor, but what do I know?
To this day, many passengers wait in line in the Jetway to board the aircraft — long enough at times that I am surprised that airlines have not considered renting Jetway space to third-party merchants with kiosks to sell their wares while passengers wait. Those destination posters currently hanging in the Jetway have never caused me to think to myself that I must purchase a round-trip ticket to the advertised destination — let alone persuade others to do the same.
What answers might you have for improving the boarding process for airlines? Assuming you had no factors to inhibit you and you could design the entire system from scratch, what would you propose?
I wish United Airlines the best of luck with these new changes, even though their intentions are in the right place. I have a feeling they are going to need it…

  1. Early boarding for Credit Card holders? This exists in the Continental world and was never a benefit at United. United was simple 4 groups and Chase Visa. The merger brought 9 boarding groups and a multitude of CO credit cards, each with it’s own benefits. Then 7 groups and now 5.
    Hey UA.. Keep it simple !#@$%.

  2. UNBELIEVABLE! The merger has made United Arrogant and Unrespectful for their Mileage Plus FREQUENT FLYERS!!! To allow a simple credit card holder advance boarding, most are likely infrequent flyers, is ludicrous!! I witnessed a woman trying to board in Group 1 as she proudly told the gate agent “I am a Explorer Card holder”! As IF!!! United also should realize that many of us GOld+ flyers no longer come close to auto-upgrades since the merger brought in a huge amount of high status fliers! WIth that said, United needs to find more ways to provide us Gold+ fliers with more reason to remain loyal instead of grouping us with the masses and treating us as infrequent, low fare paying casual fliers!!! WAKE UP UNITED and RETHINK THIS REVISED BOARDING PROCESS or else many of us will reach out to your competitors who will gladly honor our status and treat us as we should be treated!!!

  3. btw, has anyone noticed that United’s airfares in most major markets are typically $50-$200 higher than American, Delta & US Air?! They are also capturing more $$$ from us, especially business travelers!!!

  4. As a Premier Gold with UA, I am very disappointed by this HUGE downgrade in benefits. Reports have already been posted on FT that Golds have been having trouble finding overhead bin space near their seats with the new boarding process. There will undoubtedly be further changes that will degrade the FF benefits. I have already contacted Delta, and they will match my status to Gold Medallion. Delta allows Golds to board with the first group. They also have cheaper fares than UA, and more availability of economy comfort seating when booking close-in (I have checked this). I’ve been a loyal UA flyer since 1995. But the time has come to move on, since they do not seem to value FF loyalty anymore.

  5. I always flew Continental before the merger. At this point, I’d rather take a connecting flight than be forced into the supporting UA with my money for all the poor decisions they have made since the merger, – this is just another poor decision in a long string of stupid business decisions. This decision is right up there with “New Coke”, – and similarly, I’m betting, this decision will be “reconsidered” by management and reversed . . .

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