More tweaks coming to the United boarding process

Fewer seats and more space for lining up. Does it work?

United Airlines reported Q3 ’15 earnings this morning and while the numbers matter they were not the focus of the call. United ousted CEO Jeff Smisek just over a month ago and the industry is keen to hear what changes are coming to help “right the ship” and bring United back to greatness (at least that’s what was said on the call). Interim CEO Brett Hart is at the helm, sitting in for Oscar Munoz who is out on medical leave following a heart attack last week and the tone was a mix of solemn and excited. Even with Munoz out of commission there’s a palpable demand for change. So, what’s on the agenda?

Hart did not have a ton to say. Most of the questions were handled by others on the management team. When he did speak up the comments were solid but not particularly ground-breaking. He mentioned IROPs handling, the boarding process, and the overall in-flight experience all needing to improve. But those are small potatoes,

At the core operation reliability is the driver for customer satisfaction.

And that’s definitely true. Operational reliability is critical to success in the airline industry, far more than the seats or the catering.

The new gate layout being tested at O'Hare B8
The new gate layout being tested at O’Hare B8

Of course, fixing operational reliability is harder than adjusting the catering. Later in the call management was asked what can be expected to change with these factors. New “premium” coffee is coming soon, we were promised. The company has heard the complaints “loud and clear” and has narrowed the choices down to three finalists with a decision expected imminently.

And then there’s the boarding process. Jim Compton took that question and spoke about testing which will begin at O’Hare’s gate B8 next week. He did not mention specific things which will be tested but did suggest that the media come hang out in the terminal to watch and see how it works. Interestingly enough, I was at that gate just a few weeks ago and noticed some of the differences (compared to older gate areas; the new testing wasn’t running yet when I was there).

Fewer seats and more space for lining up. Does it work?
Fewer seats and more space for lining up. Does it work?

Maybe more changes are coming since my visit but it is still a lot of chutes/lanes and a lot of lines. There is insufficient space to offer both seating and queuing room. And if passengers queue the spillover into the terminal walkway is a mess.

Boarding scrums remain a challenge
Boarding scrums remain a challenge
Power (USB + AC) at O'Hare B8
Power (USB + AC) at O’Hare B8

At that point it really doesn’t matter too much what group number is called. There’s plenty of hate over the Southwest Airlines boarding number approach but at least then it is obvious when a passenger is out of place. And the “vigilante justice” in such scenarios is often swift and sufficient.

Personally I’m not convinced there’s anything to be done to ease or improve the boarding process short of strict enforcement of the rules. And tightening up the carry-on bag limits would likely help, too. The sequencing of the people is far less the issue than the inability of so many passengers to count to two or to stow bags reasonably once on board.

I should also point out that during this particular flight boarding I saw the entire thing, start to finish, thanks to a panic about losing my laptop and being the last person to board the flight. That also gave me some time to chat with the gate agents. They were not especially impressed. Though, again, this was a prior iteration and it is unclear what the tweaks are which will be tested starting next week.

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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. Yeah, I went through that process in ORD quite recently as well. Can’t say I thought it was a big change (and, as you say, there may have been more changes since then). But, I am encouraged that they’re trying things to see if they can make improvements.

  2. So, what about the process was actually different? I’ll be ex-ORD Monday morning, so will try to swing by B8 if I have time.

    1. Last month it was nothing special, save for the way the space is laid out in the terminal. The new testing is supposed to start on Monday, October 26th.

  3. Call it the “Southwest-ification” of the boarding process. Essentially, more lines for more boarding groups. As Seth said, it got a bit crowded. Mine was a flight to IAD on a 737/A320 is aircraft and the lines stretched out into the concourse.

  4. I am not a fan of United – AT ALL. But I think that it’s current boarding process is better than AA or DL. Southwestification isn’t all bad and UA was already headed in that direction. All three airlines have problems with gate lice. Because UA already had the different areas for Group 1, Group 2, etc., it gave the various classes of Gate Lice a place to stand and line up (which people did). At both AA and DL, all non-elites are grouped into the same category and they hover around the gate area in an ever tightening Rugby scrum. This tends to block both the elite boarding area and the non-elite boarding area too as the signage isn’t intuitive for infrequent travelers at all. You might have a Group 4 with delusions of grandeur hovering around the front with his two spinner bags blocking everyone’s path because they don’t know that they’re in the very last boarding group. While the UA method does lack a certain dignity and you do feel almost like you are waiting to get on the bumper cars at the fair, it is more intuitive and might actually result in quicker boarding.

  5. I just flew UA on a NRT-SIN segment last night in F. They called GS and Military – then Group 1…no First. So we wound up on a line about 40-50 deep to board. I don’t fly UA (it was a *A award) but I was stunned that they treat F boarding the same as both Biz and (I assume) status customers. It’s a totally weird way to run an airline. After that little performance I feel comfortable I’m on the right track continuing to give OW the bulk of my revenue based premium cabin business overseas.

  6. Yup, and other carriers are similar.

    Honestly, if I’m flying F long-haul I’m the last to board, not the first. No need to spend extra time on the plane and there’s no fighting for bin space.

    1. Yesterday morning last person boarding F had to stow baggage +6 rows back in coach. No help to retrieve.

      1. But what does that have to do with the boarding process?

        They didn’t have to do that because others in Y put their bags in the F bins, right? Much more likely that other F pax put too much overhead and nothing underneath.

  7. here in asia flights aren’t all paradise, but the boarding frenzy/scramble for overhead bin space/militaristic airline personnel on US flights never fail to amuse/frustrate … maybe US flights should also begin enforcing weight & size limits for carry-on baggage. as for the boarding frenzy, UA can talk to SQ, NH, CX … learn from the experts.

  8. FYI, I was at ORD yesterday morning and walked by B8 as I exited PreCheck. Looks like they’ve reconfigured it for this week, with group 3-4-5 boarding off to the left of the desk and running parallel to the windows, and groups 1-2 to the right.

    They have much longer boarding lanes for groups 3-5. The irony, of course, is that groups 1-2 are often much larger!

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