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:
- Unaccompanied minors
- Customers with disabilities
- Active members of the military
- United Global Services® members
- Families traveling with children age 2 and younger
- Premier® 1K® members
- Premier Platinum members
- Premier Gold members
- Star Alliance™ Gold members
- Customers seated in premium cabins: United Polaris®, United First® and United Business®
- 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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