United shuffles boarding groups

United Airlines has a new boarding order for flights system-wide. The program is one of several tested at airports across the globe as the company seeks to improve the flow of customers on to the aircraft. It keeps the boarding groups but adjusts which passengers are in some of them. And also leaves an unnumbered boarding group in place, just to keep things interesting at the gate.

United hopes that the new arrangement will reduce the time passengers spend in line awaiting boarding to start. Dropping back to only two lanes from five that should deliver on that, at least in theory. But that assumes passengers will wait until their boarding group is called to approach the lane. History suggests this is a Sisyphean goal.

The new boarding order comes with additional clues to help guide travelers through the process. The lanes are be color-coded to reduce confusion. Digital signage in the gate areas will advise passengers which group is actively boarding and which is next, as well as which lane they should use. The carrier also suggests push notifications via the app and SMS messaging may be used to alert passengers to the boarding process, though details around how granular that will be remain sparse.

MileagePlus 1K members join the preboarding group at the gate as part of the new scheme. That opportunity was previously reserved for the Global Services tier of passengers (and various groups requiring assistance or extra time). This is arguably an upgrade for the 1K members, though it raises challenges with crowd control.

Any time a large number of passengers move towards the boarding door others are quick to follow. Adding more to the pre-boarding group will not address that problem. And with the larger group of travelers now pre-boarding rather than in the “normal” Group 1 there’s a decent chance that the “gate lice” line will be a more confused mess than before. Both Group 1 and Group 2 passengers will queue as before, plus the larger pre-boarding group will not have a place to stand. Expecting them to just remain seated is unlikely to work.

The Gold Premier tier also gets an upgrade, from Group 2 to Group 1. This puts them ahead of those who receive priority boarding via a co-branded credit card, among others.

The motivations for these changes are clear. The new arrangement gives more elite tier members in the frequent flyer program a step up relative to where they were previously. The pendulum that swings between long-term loyalty and transaction-based rewards shifted slightly. It will, no doubt, shift again in the future. And except for those few travelers the reality of the boarding experience is unlikely to change much.

Gate hold areas generally have insufficient seating for everyone to remain seated until their group is called. The idea that everyone is going to sit at the gate until their group is called defies decades of behavioral history. And unless the airline is willing to have its gate agents enforce the boarding group numbers this is mostly for show anyways. It probably won’t really affect the overall boarding times. But a few people will feel more special, so I suppose that’s a win.

Here’s the full breakdown of the new boarding order:

Boarding groups

  1. Unaccompanied minors
  2. Customers with disabilities
  3. Active members of the military
  4. United Global Services® members
  5. Families traveling with children age 2 and younger
  6. Premier® 1K® members
Group 1
  • Premier Platinum members
  • Premier Gold members
  • Star Alliance™ Gold members
  • Customers seated in premium cabins: United Polaris®, United First® and United Business®
Group 2
  • Premier Silver members
  • Star Alliance Silver members
  • Customers who have purchased Premier Access® or Priority Boarding
  • United℠ Explorer, Club, Presidential Plus℠ and Awards Cardmembers
Groups 3 – 5
  • Economy Plus®
  • United Economy®
  • Basic Economy*

* Customers who have purchased a Basic Economy ticket will be in the last boarding group, except for Premier members, Chase Cardmembers of qualifying cards and Star Alliance Gold members, who will still receive their priority boarding.

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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. Not really. If you think about it, American has the nine numbered groups, but also pre-board those needing special assistance, those with children under 2, and Concierge Key members. They actually have 12 groups, although there may not be anyone in the non-numbered groups, or group 1 on some regional flights.

      United has 5 numbered groups and six pre-board groups, for a total of 11. Again, some of those pre-board groups may be empty (military, families, disabilities, unaccompanied minors). Of the “regular” pre-boards, it’s really GS and 1K, so you have 7 groups of folks.

      You’ll still see a ton of people lined up in Groups 1 and 2, but hopefully all the GS and 1Ks won’t be clogging the boarding lanes, except perhaps on hub-hub flights. And hopefully groups 1 and two will be slightly shorter and not block as much of the gate areas or concourses.

      1. Agreed that it is still a bunch of “groups” either way. Disagree that you won’t see GS/1K in the boarding lanes. Given that they will have to pass through the lane to board where else are they going to hang out awaiting the pre-boarding call? Especially when the Plat/Gold/F pax will also be in that line awaiting their turn.

        1. Yeah, I was just being (probably overly) optimistic about the GS and 1K. I’m sure it’ll still be a bit of a cluster.

  1. Hate the term gate lice. Disrespectful to our fellow travelers, no matter their status. Bloggers love to use it, but they’d never say it to a coach persons face….,

  2. It is not a generalization. It is a very specific term for people who crowd the boarding lanes before their group is called. And I frequently find myself reminding those passengers that they’re in the way during the boarding process. I’m not shy about that.

    Thanks for reading.

    1. ALL passengers do it including those in the first boarding group. The only difference is those in the first group walk about and stand there with a smug disposition that say, “look at me, I better than you because I get to board first” and I bet their all democrats too!

    2. Guess I’ll consider this my last visit to your site. Lice is a negative disease type connotation and not appropriate. And, no, you’d never call someone that to their face at the gate. Some of you bloggers just think you’re so special…

  3. The International gates at SFO are miserable.
    1. Few people can distinguish between groups 1 and 2; lines frequently merge.
    2. Areas are too narrow and swell with people parking bags on the sides of the lines.
    3. People frequently cut-in without getting in line.
    4. When the door is open to board, it’s usually just one door. But, frequently, UA gate agents will open the 2nd door and tell people to use the 2nd door. (No lines, just people running over. Think of a new checkout lane at the grocery opening. This too is filled with people from the wrong groups.)
    5. Families with children age 2 and under. They are kidding right? I’ve seen packs of families with teens pre-boarding.
    6. Gate lice are a problem. I think there should be signage for them to be quarantined in a corner until ready for boarding.

    In the future, the self-checkin, self-bag check will feature stickers printed with “Pre Board 1-5, Group 1 and so forth, along with our boarding pass barcode. Then, we are to self-affix the stickers to our foreheads. We will be put into corrals in the corridors based on our sticker status, then, released by group/status to the gates.
    Problem solved.

  4. I love the term “gate lice.” It doesn’t refer to a traveler’s status, but rather to the propensity of some people to crowd the gate and block the lanes long before their boarding group – often before any boarding group.

  5. What ever happened to the concept of boarding from the back of the plane first.If the airlines were really interested in efficiency ,less hastle,quicker boarding etc.they would board from the back as it used to be before Elitism from all the loyalty programs took over!!!

    1. You said it Larry. Back to front…why am I always waiting for someone at the front to stow their bags, coats hats and what ever the hell else they have while they keep everyone else waiting and slow down boarding. I cant believe with all the turn around times that they still insist on boarding front to back…go figure ???

    2. Exactly! The did this on many Azores Airline flights, boarding from the back first, and it was AMAZING how fast the planes were loaded! About halfway through the process, they would open the front loading area too (tarmac boarding). WOW, that plane could be loaded and ready to go in like 10 minutes. I’ve never seen anything like it. When people got on at the back, they either quickly grabbed a spot and sat down, or kept walking as far forward as they wanted, clearly seeing how much space was/wasn’t available in the overheads in front of them. So smart!

    3. They also could board odd and even seats really diminishing the need to wait for people to move through the aisles.

  6. It is not like plan will leave you behind and fly away. Just sit down and wait everyone else to board. It is best to get in last after everyone settled. Besides, basic logic dictates that passengers sitting on the rear should board first, no priority boarding maybe except first class.. it is not like you get a better deal by boarding first.. nothing changes…

    1. It makes a difference if you have study to go in overhead or are in aisle seat. If you go on too soon then you have to keep getting up or get hit in head by people’s bags etc, I used to always wait and just go on last but actually now find window seat,early boarding best.
      Agree that boarding from rear best but also wish United staff were consistent on hand luggage rules.

    2. And you’re also the first one unceremoniously kicked off the over-booked flight if you’re the last one on and they don’t have volunteers.

    3. Overhead bag storage space is generally the driving factor for those jockeying to board sooner.

  7. The boarding area seating should be configured like the inside of the airplane with seats numbered. Everyone in the boarding area sits just as they will sit in the plane. Then the plane loads back to front.

    1. Gate areas generally do not have enough seats for this to be viable. Also, assigning seats (or even making people sit) in the gate areas just means more problems of queuing, inconvenience and stress.

  8. Not sure if this is non-news or fake-news.
    Do not believe such procedures merit an article.

    With United’s recent change in baggage/luggage policies, I changed my booking policy to other airlines. Within the US – Southwest seem to have the most effective policy; internationally Delta look attractive. Amongst US airlines.

    Global Traveller

  9. My first choice would be back to front loading, with front loading opening as an option halfway through.
    Second option would be loading all window seats first, then middle seats, then aisle seats. Brilliant idea to seat people in the airport in the same order as their flight seats, but first organize them by seat position, so you don’t have 6 people from the same row trying to board at the same time, just the 2 window seats, etc. Or board just the right side of the plane (if people want to board with family members) and are usually on the same row.

  10. Tried the new UA boarding system at ORD yesterday. I’m a 1k. Boarding was chaotic with nowhere for the preboards to stand, the gate lice piling in ahead of their boarding group, etc. The system may work better at airports with roomier waiting areas like IAH but not at older, smaller ones.

    1. Roughly as expected/predicted. At least by those outside the company who understand passenger psychology.

  11. I quit flying United when they created global services. Too often I found some low level corporate employee had scarfed up the business class upgrades, and the boarding line for Group 1 would often seem to fill up half the plane.

    1. GS has existed for a long, long, long time. As in many years prior to the UA/CO merger. So have corporate status matches/grants from all programs, not just MileagePlus.

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