Airlines seek to improve boarding process

Stressed out when it comes time to board your flight? You're not alone.

Two of the USA’s biggest airlines have announced modifications to the way they call passengers to board their planes, an effort to improve a part of flying many travelers find frustrating and confusing.

The changes come as fliers on many airlines now face what can feel like a bewildering set of boarding rules and groupings. On some flights, the first hint that boarding is about to begin sparks a rush to the gate as travelers jockey for position to get on the plane.

“Airlines now have so many different tiers of boarding groups, between their different levels of elite-status members and their co-branded credit card customers and others," says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst and founder of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research. “The result is frustration, crowding, unpleasantness and stress. Nobody is winning here.”

American was first to announce a change, rolling out a “simplified” boarding call for its flights. In a change that began March 1, passengers on the nation’s largest airline are summoned to board starting with Group 1, which includes first class customers and active-duty military. The process continues through Group 9, which includes customers booked in American’s new no-frills "Basic Economy" fare class.

American says the revamped nine-group set-up is a change in name only.

But that may underscore how complicated boarding has become these days. Under American’s old boarding call, Group 1 actually was the fifth group called for boarding, trailing the carrier’s elite frequent-fliers and first- and business-class customers who were subdivided into five groups of their own that all boarded earlier.

Now, travelers will still board in the same order, but boarding will simply start with Group 1 and run through Group 9. Boarding groups will be printed on customers’ boarding passes, and the carrier will continue to start with a “pre-boarding" call for those needing extra time to board the plane.

Meanwhile, Delta – the USA’s second-biggest carrier – is experimenting with its own adjustment to the boarding process. Unlike American, however, Delta’s change affects the physical location where the different groups stand as they queue to board the aircraft.

The scheme has been added to Delta’s busiest hub in Atlanta, where the company has placed "branded pillars" at gates in Atlanta’s B Concourse. Delta has labeled each pillar with a corresponding boarding group. There’s "Premium" for the carrier’s first-class passengers and Diamond-level frequent-fliers and "Sky" for most other frequent fliers with elite status. Following are Zone 1, Zone 2 and Zone 3.

Delta says it’s trying “to take the ‘hold room’ feel out of the gate space” for waiting fliers, and suggests suggests it may be expanded.

“We are looking to implement the enhanced boarding process at additional airports this year if customer feedback continues to be positive,” Delta spokeswoman Ashton Morrow tells USA TODAY.

One airline that already has experience using pillars to group boarding passengers is Southwest, the USA’s largest low-cost carrier.

On Southwest, there are no assigned seats, meaning the earlier fliers get on the plane, the better their choice of seats.

As Southwest’s popularity grew, crowding in the gate area became a concern as customers queued up to be first on the plane. Southwest’s solution in 2007: a system that assigned fliers numbers that were subdivided into one of three groups: A, B and C.

For boarding, Southwest calls for fliers in its “A” group to line up at their corresponding pillars, which display numbers indicating where passengers where should stand. As the “A” group boards, Southwest repeats the process for the “B” and “C” groups until all passengers have boarded.

The move didn’t eliminate pre-boarding line-ups, but it did add order to the process. When it was introduced, Southwest touted the then-new system as one that would free up travelers so that they could roam the airport instead of feeling compelled to hold a spot in line at the gate.

Southwest spokeswoman Thais Hanson says to USA TODAY that surveys of its customers indicate they prefer the process rather than “a more typical airline approach.”

“We keep it because it makes sense and customers enjoy it,” Hanson adds.

At United, no changes have been announced recently, though officials at the USA’s No. 3 carrier say the company is always looking for ways to improve its customers’ experiences.

United already uses a five-lane system similar to the one Delta is testing. It also separates its boarding groups into multiple lanes at its gates.

United's lanes correspond with intuitively labeled boarding groups, starting with Group 1 and running through Group 5. Like American and Delta, elite frequent-flier status and customers sitting in first- and business-class get slotted into the earlier boarding groups.

But United’s scheme has flaws too, such as when a large number of its elite customers are flying on a single flight.

“It is not uncommon on some United flights to see what appears to be 25% or more of the plane in line to board in Group 1,” Harteveldt says. “So United hasn’t cracked the code either.”

For now, that leaves airlines looking for that elusive perfect solution.

USA TODAY


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