American’s new boarding policy, and why it just doesn’t matter

A few months ago American Airlines quietly (or so they thought; turns out JohnnyJet was on a test flight so news spread quickly) started testing a new boarding process for their flights. The key change was that passengers with only small carry-on bags (i.e. underseat sized) would be allowed to board following Group 2. The theory is that these passengers are being rewarded for not putting bags in the overhead bins and they aren’t slowing the boarding process so they can board whenever they want (after the elite status passengers). But does it really matter?

One report on the process suggests that the total average time savings is 2-3 minutes per flight. Sure, multiply that out by thousands of daily departures and it sounds like a ton of time “saved” daily, but it really only counts if they change the flight times to account for that supposed savings. At 2-3 minutes on average per flight I’m betting against them adjusting block turn times for the flights.

Beyond that, however, I also cannot help but wonder which passengers are actually happily taking advantage of this benefit. Most of the race to board early is – at least from what I’ve seen – people trying to make sure they have space to stow their bags. If you don’t need overhead space it doesn’t make sense that there would be a great rush to get on the plane and cram yourself into a space just over 17″ wide and ~31-34″ deep, a small space that you’re going to be stuck in for the next many hours.

In other words, unless you absolutely need to be on board, why would you subject yourself to more time on the plane??

Don’t get me wrong – I love flying on a plane. And that means spending a lot of time on planes. But I also don’t go out of my way to be the first person on board. And when I’m traveling very light (which is most of the time these days) I happily board towards the end of the process, tuck my bag wherever it fits (including under my seat sometimes) and get going. Yes, I prefer to have the bag overhead, but that’s not the type of passenger this program is supposed to appeal to. This is for passengers who don’t have much in the way of a bag, for whom the need to get on board to store their stuff is key.

Maybe I’m missing out and there is a huge group of passengers who really, really, really like sitting in coach seats and want to do more of it. I suppose it is fantastic for that group. But it seems unlikely to me that anyone really benefits from this move.

More than that, however, there is also a reasonable concern that this will actually make things worse. Here’s one view which isn’t completely off-base:

If all the small things are put in the overheads because those passengers get on first that means more gate-checked bags, not fewer. Whoopsie.

I’m not completely convinced that it will be a problem, but I’m also not convinced this is a change which makes things better for many passengers. Certainly not enough to justify potentially pissing off a lot of other passengers for it.

What am I missing??

Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.

Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. It really shouldn’t matter to most passengers but I can see a value to the airline as if it helps have less people miss connections and theoretically this would then everyone is better off…’s a story only a true bean counter would appreciate……….

  2. I think this may cause some issues. Agree with the guy tweeting AA with his concern. What is likely to happen is:

    1) for many folks with 2 carryons to attempt boarding early

    2) for many folks with 1 carryon to put in in the overhead bin anyway

    3) for FAs to have to police this, which will be impossible

    The losers are business travelers that are boarding late (either due to lack of status or due to late inbound connection).

    What’s really behind this is most likely a drive for more ancillary revenue by bribing pax to pay to check a bag so they can board in group 2…

    We will see how it pans out…

    1. @AAExPlat: All of those things are problems anyways; the new policy doesn’t really change that.

      And, despite everyone hating on the non-elites as the problem with bags in the overheads, my experience has been rather mixed on that front. I see plenty of elites with too many bags or bags which are too large or who insist on putting multiple bags in the overhead. Yet those are the same ones complaining about other people causing issues.

  3. You can only move as fast as the slowest person in front of you. By letting fast people on first, you can save time. What your missing is if you can save 2-3 minutes per flight for 1000 flights per day you can adjust your a/c routings to take advantage of the newly available a/c utilization time. That potential added revenue is huge. And business customers wont change airlines over this.

    But I agree with other posters, this requires FAs to enforce the rules and be proactive about coats and other small items, and we know they aren’t very good at that.

  4. > What your (sic) missing is if you can save 2-3 minutes per flight for 1000 flights per day you can adjust your a/c routings

    He didn’t miss it. He addressed this point directly.

  5. Those saying “business travelers”, must not be meaning “business class”, right? FAs are SUPPOSED to not allow economy fliers to put their bags in the overhead bin of business/first class. If you want to be sure you have room to put your bag on the plane and get going fast after landing, then get on the plane quicker and sit longer for that benefit. If you miss a connection and have to check it, then there will always be the possibility there isn’t room for your bag in overhead still. This policy doesn’t change that.

  6. I try to board really late these days. The current boarding process on most airlines just stresses me out.

  7. I disagree that there is no incentive to board early unless you are vying for prime overhead space. I rarely bring anything larger than what will fit under the seat. But, I still really want to board as early as possible. I don’t have to wait in line in the freezing cold or oppressive heat on the jetway. I don’t have to wait for people to fidget with their belongings trying to find space right above their seat. I don’t have to go climbing over people or make them get up to get to my window seat. Did I mention I hate waiting in lines? I just want to get in my seat and out of everyone’s way. I always sit in a window seat, and it’s my little cocoon away from the chaos of boarding. I want to get in that cocoon as quickly and as early as possible and bury myself into a good book or some other distraction.

  8. Not only FAs policing onboard, but what about GAs policing people who stroll up to the doorway with a too-large bag (or too many)? Now you have to turn them around or make them step aside, which is another potential bottleneck.

  9. Unless you are in FC you are just screwed today…….AA boarding so comical as they call off all the priority boarding……then at the end it is “for the three people who did not qualify for early boarding you may now board”…….good luck with that……

  10. FA’s need to be the bad guys and kick people’s coats, backpacks, and bouquets of flowers out of the overheads.

    There are other reasons to want to board early. I’m with @Adam; I just want to get the boarding process over with and start reading my book or trying to sleep.

  11. Frontier does this already so AA is copying. The process seems to work fine from the flights I was on, although a few people would take advantage by either placing their small carry on in the overhead or not leaving the bigger bag at the bottom of the jetway.

  12. Seth. Why solicit a response from readers only to douche some of them (in this case me) publicly? Lesson learned and note taken. My last comment of any kind of substance here.

  13. At the margin 2-3 minutes per flight will slightly improve on-time performance statistics. Every so often that will make the difference between being on time or not.

  14. AAExPlat: If saying that the same problems exist now as they did before – exactly what I wrote in the post, also – is being a “douche” then I’m not sure what to say. Safe travels.

Comments are closed.