Delta tweaks boarding groups for premium passengers

This story is produced in partnership with PaxEx.Aero - The Business of Passenger Experience

Delta passengers get to learn a new boarding process starting in January. The carrier announced a revised, “Branded Boarding” process today, aiming to “create a consistent, clear experience from booking to on board” as well as minimize crowding at the gate. The new program is spectacularly similar to the existing process, though a couple key tweaks could deliver the desired improvement in passenger experience.

As part of the branded fares evolution each product, plus Sky Priority, receives a color accent. The company explained that “The colors are inspired by Delta’s primary brand palette and the Passport Plum shade of purple introduced with the Zac Posen-designed uniforms. The goal is to create a cohesive experience – from booking to on board – where customers can recognize the attributes of the branded fare they purchased at every step of the way.”

Breaking down the old and new boarding order. A couple more groups but still naming them rather than numbering them.
Breaking down the old and new boarding order. A couple more groups but still naming them rather than numbering them.

The existing six boarding groups (plus various pre-board designees) become eight groups under the new program. The first two groups – Premium and Sky Priority – each split into two groups. As the biggest crush of passengers comes at the beginning of boarding the company hopes the split, and smaller numbers for each of the first four groups, will lower congestion and stress in the gate area. The company notes that it tested the Comfort+ boarding group in Atlanta where “agents said it was easier to manage because customers understood when they boarded based on their fare.”

For intercontinental service the Premium group now splits into Delta One and Premium Select. Given the number of seats in those two cabins (e.g. 80 on the A350) plus Diamond Medallions included in the group, the crowd can be sizable. For routes without the Delta One cabin the new Group 1 will simply not exist; Group 2, including First Class passengers and Diamond Medallions, will be called first.

Splitting the Sky Priority group similarly separates out passengers into smaller, more manageable numbers. It also presents a potential point of confusion for some Medallion members. Comfort+ is now the third group to board. This includes Medallions who scored complimentary upgrades to those seats. Those same Platinum and Gold elite frequent flyers will board in the fourth group if their Comfort+ upgrade does not clear. It is not hard to see how some members at those tiers see feel these changes as a downgrade as they are pushed further down the boarding hierarchy while flying just as much as they previously did.

Holders of the various Delta/American Express co-brand credit cards will continue to board as part of the “Main Cabin 1” group, renamed from Zone 1. Those travelers have the same number and makeup of premium passengers boarding ahead of them but now in more groups. While they should not feel slighted it is possible the company will experience some pushback as they realize the number of groups boarding ahead of them.

The four economy class boarding groups remain the same, though it appears the company will now explicitly call out the final group as Basic Economy rather than just Zone 4. It will be interesting to see if that change affect purchase patterns for some travelers.

One challenge the proposed changes does not appear to address is naming the boarding groups in a manner that is explicitly clear to passengers. Rather than two groups boarding before the group with the number one in the name Delta will have four. Colors can help clue passengers in. So can announcements and signage. But simply numbering the groups one through eight rather than naming them won’t solve that portion of the confusion. It is a problem today and unlikely to change with the new branding. Also of note, the colored branding will roll out into sales channels in a staged manner throughout 2019. This reduces the early impact of that “cohesive experience” goal as most passengers won’t see the new colors while booking for some time.

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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. Delta wouldn’t have to do this if they simply enforced the order. Too often, the guy ahead of me is not Prem (I’m a Diamond Medallion who’s mostly in the front cabin) and invariably they just let him board. If they simply kicked these folks back to the back, the boarding gate wouldn’t be such a mess when they call each category. As it is, they just reward the line jumpers. The new system doesn’t help if they don’t enforce it.

  2. Good Lord, this is confusing! They would be better off if they gave everyone a unique number when they bought their ticket, or did it alphabetically, or by what sign they born under. (Aquarius boards before Scorpio, except in the Year of the Dragon….)

  3. Since at the gate the announcements are mostly garbled and unintelligible, this is all Delta color fun. Ignore it. Just be one of the roaches and crawl up to the lane of your choice.

  4. Wow. Airlines really don’t have to pay attention to ADA stuff. Color coding? With shades of red and blue? Seriously?

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