Why did airlines decide that "1" isn’t first?!?

We learn to count early in life. Numbers go in order. So do letters, for that matter. Lists make sense to us all from a very young age because they are properly ordered. So why is it that airlines haven’t figured out how to properly use ordinal lists in their boarding process?

Think Boarding Group A is the first to get on the plane? That makes sense given that “A” is the first letter in the alphabet. With airlines, however, there’s a pretty good chance you’re wrong. JetBlue recently switched its boarding process to use group designators. And some lucky passengers get Group A on their boarding pass, but they’re not first to board.

Now Boarding: JetBlue has a "Group A" in its new boarding scheme but A doesn't come first. And passengers are confused.
Now Boarding: JetBlue has a “Group A” in its new boarding scheme but A doesn’t come first. And passengers are confused.

That benefit is reserved for Mint and Mosaic customers. Just like most other airlines premium cabin travelers go first. So do the frequent flyers who hold status in the loyalty program. But they’re in the Mosaic group, and that comes before Group A. Which only makes sense if you work at an airline.

JetBlue is not alone in this, of course. United Airlines finally changed its boarding groups a few years ago to more closely reflect the reality of counting. More recently American Airlines did the same. Yet both still have some passengers that board before their Group 1 passengers are called. Delta Air Lines has a Group 1 as well, but those passengers start boarding about half way through any given flight.

What is so hard about putting together a list starting at 1 or A? I watched as my flight boarded earlier this week in San Francisco and at least half a dozen people in Group A were turned away from the front of the line during the priority boarding process. Yes, they should’ve listened more closely to the announcements. But also, why would anyone suspect that if you’re in the first (based on the common understanding of ordinal lists we’ve all held since learning to count as a toddler) group you’re not supposed to go when things start?

So, yeah, passengers are part of the problem. They don’t listen and don’t care and think the rules must apply to someone else, not to them. But the airlines’ ability to break every common convention we have with respect to counting and letter sequences is pretty amazing. And not in a good way.

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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. The joy of inconsistencies between airlines, their own employees/contractors and the learned helplessness that we all have acquired. Since pretty much every airline uses zonal boarding, I don’t know why they can’t just assign a zone for everyone, including those who should for what ever reason be 1st, 2nd etc in priority to the first zone for GENERAL boarding. A few examples, Turkish Airlines doesn’t give a zone for Business Class, they just board first (other airlines may assign biz pax Zone 1); Westjet gives priority boarding to folks seated in exit rows (ahead of zone 1) and makes a special announcement for the affected rows (my exit row boarding pass was printed zone 3); and then there is what age children qualify for priority boarding 3, 5, 6? That varies not only airline to airline but some airports, particularly with contract ground handlers just say family or young children.

  2. On a somewhat related note, why is there no row 1 or 2 on most American Airlines domestic flights?

    1. lots of airlines do that so they can align row numbers across various fleet types and configurations … say on UA’s narrowbody mainline domestic fleet, row 21 is basically the emergency exit row over the wing (or the 2nd exit row over the wing for 738 etc)

    2. Yeah…what Henry said. Thai Airways always starts economy at row 30 (or it used to). That meant boarding the lower deck of the A380 and the first row was 30. Very confusing if you’re not expecting it. But it also lets them better handle aircraft swaps without people losing their seat assignment or type of seat they want.

      I just had a United 787-9 swap for a 787-8. My bulkhead business class seat (6A) became the last row in business. I was fortunate that 4A was still open and got the bulkhead back.

  3. I don’t usually fly Delta but I got a boarding group 2 and thought I’d get on the plane relatively early.

    But nope. After countless elites and whatever other sudo group there was I might as well have been in group 100 lol.

    1. Not in any normal counting system. It is a lower number but that doesn’t mean it is first ordinally.

  4. How does the author suggest taking care of those who decide they need a wheelchair after the time of their booking? Reissue a new boarding pass? Are we going to have active military personnel call after booking just to tell the airlines, wasting time and resources? Seems cumbersome. Proper announcements at the gate address this. It’s easier to LISTEN and be aware of your surroundings and understand just because you think you’re first, you may not be.

    1. I’d argue that the priority boarding for military is stupid and pandering. If you really wanted to automate it, however, make it a profile option and let the person add the necessary details. Or just allow them to board at their leisure regardless of boarding group printed on the BP. As they’re in uniform to get that benefit it is easy to tell who is supposed to have access to it.

      For those in wheelchairs no need to make an announcement since they’re all handled by contract staff who can be easily coordinated by the gate agent without making an announcement.

      Announcements are part of the process and it would be swell if everyone listened and understood what was going on. But that is only part of the “problem” given that the announcements are less than logical. To say nothing of the noise and other challenges to get around in a loud terminal.

  5. Because of marketing. Airlines want to call MINT and Mosaic by their product names – not just throw all those pax into Group 1. It’s all about recognizing those customers. And a lot of them like walking up to board at that time, because other people look at them and know they’re someone “special”.

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