Delta Overhauls Boarding Process, Introduces Branded Boarding

Filed Under: Delta

Delta has announced that they’re overhauling their boarding process. Or at least that’s how they view it. I’m not sure it’s quite as radical as they think.

Zone boarding has been the standard in the airline industry for decades, and going forward Delta will instead start boarding by branded fare purchased. Personally I don’t think they’re actually dumping zone boarding, but rather they’re just rebranding it. Delta says that this is part of their effort to bring consistency, simplicity, and clarity to the gate and boarding experience.

These changes will kick in on all Delta operated flights globally as of January 23, 2019. With this, Delta will introduce new color accents that distinguish Delta’s fare products (Basic Economy, Main Cabin, Delta Comfort+, Delta Premium Select/First Class and Delta One).

Each fare product will have a specific color, inspired by Delta’s primary brand palette.

Delta’s SVP and and Chief Marketing Officer had the following to say about these changes:

“Every customer values consistency and a sense of knowing what to expect when they’re traveling. We have been listening to our customers about the stress they often feel at the gate before boarding, and implementing small changes for years. This latest enhancement further refines how Delta’s process works and is designed to better link the Delta product they purchased to differentiated experiences throughout their journey.”

With these changes, Delta will rename boarding groups to reflect the branded fare purchase, and will also increase the number of boarding groups to encourage fewer customers to line up in the gate area at any one time.

Here’s a chart showing the new boarding order:

The reason I say these changes might not be quite as radical as Delta makes them out to be is because fundamentally main cabin boarding isn’t changing. They’ll just rename Zone 1 as Main Cabin 1, rename Zone 2 as Main Cabin 2, and so on.

The biggest differences here are to priority boarding:

  • For flights with Delta One, Delta One and Diamond Medallion customers will be invited to board first, followed by Premium Select customers
  • For flights without Delta One, first class and Diamond Medallion customers will be invited to board first
  • Previously they then boarded all Sky Priority customers, but now they’ll board Comfort+ and then Sky Priority; this is bad news for Platinum Medallion members, who will now board after Comfort+ (assuming they’re not in the cabin)

Clearly this change comes down to branding more than anything else, and doing everything they can to reinforce the experience that a customer purchased. Rather than just saying “Zone 2” they’ll say “Main Cabin 2,” and they hope that makes things clearer.

While I can appreciate that they want to stick with their color palate, am I the only one who thinks this could confuse people? Since “Passport Plum” isn’t a color everyone is familiar with, I’m not sure whether this colored branding makes things easier or more confusing.

Bottom line

Delta makes it sound like they’re reinventing the wheel with this new boarding process. I’m not sure I personally see these changes as being such a huge deal.

Delta isn’t actually getting rid of zone boarding. Rather they’re doing what they can to have the boarding announcement reflect the experience someone purchased, though for a vast majority of passengers, they’ll still either be in Main Cabin 1, Main Cabin 2, Main Cabin 3, or Main Cabin 4.

So while I appreciate them making the process less arbitrary and better helping people understand what they purchased, I do think the similarity of the colors adds confusion, and I wouldn’t say that they’re getting rid of zone boarding.

What do you make of Delta’s new boarding process?

  1. 1) Does “other eligible loyalty program members not boarded with a higher seating priority” include Delta Silver and/or Credit Card members?

    2) Comfort + jumping over SkyPriority is interester

    3) The main problem for Delta (and other airlines) isn’t the boarding order, it’s the fact that the entire plane crowds the boarding area and doesn’t move until they board. As a result, people have to push through the crowd to board. The airlines need to better separate gate areas so that most people don’t stand in priority boarding lanes or areas.

  2. This will be so confusing for people. Why don’t they just refer to the zones by number 1 through 8. People in “Main cabin Zone 1” will think they are actually in zone 1 (similar to what happens now) and not realize that there are in fact four zones ahead of them. It just makes it unnecessarily complicated. My view is that zone 1 should be the first zone, not the fifth.

  3. I don’t worry about the boarding process at all. Whenever I fly Delta I gate check my carryon because they guarantee that it will be out in 20 minutes; otherwise they automatically give you 2,500 miles. No other US airlines does this. Plus Delta offers larger overhead bins on average on their mainline fleet compared to AA and UA.

  4. Woah Delta is letting their mid-hi tier along with all SkyTeam Elite Plus boarding after Comfort+…… I would expect business class treatment (or at least, premium economy) as ST elite plus…

  5. I don’t get the colors at all. I guess in theory they’ll have monitors show the colors at the gate, have the colors on boarding passes (except all their paper boarding passes print in black & white only?), etc.? This seems kind of pointless.

    I would love, though, if Delta would follow some other airlines and do the “needs extra time” boarding after the premium cabin rather than before it.

  6. I can appreciate what they’re trying to do, but I don’t think it’ll make any difference. The fact is, people crowd around the gate entrance when boarding is first started, even prelim boarding.

    The only times there is truly more organization and is more efficient is when airlines physically sort you into separate lines based on your zone, such as how AeroMexico does.

  7. I think the main cabin set up is not very good. Personally I think they should have two types of Main cabin without the number.

    Those with CC, Y fare, Silver members, SkyTeam Elite, etc. boards as Main Cabin Preferred or whatever.

    Then the rest in Main Cabin. Splitting out this group is not very effective and in my observation does not speed up the boarding process at all. They all just find themselves jammed in the jetway anyway.

  8. It’s not zones Main cabin 1 is the first of main cabin 1 idk how that is confusing to people. Thats the whole point prior they called it zone 1 and it wasn’t the first zone. Relax guys we don’t have to critique everything.

  9. at my status level (75K), i’ll get Group 1 of 5 at UA, Group 3 of 9 at AA, but freaking New Zone 4 of 8 at DL. Guess which airline will I *not* be wasting my time with ?

  10. seriously? fifty shades of purple? Do you honestly think the traveling public will be able to distinguish between mauve, perrywinkle and magenta? Give me break.

  11. @Mark G : bingo! i was gonna say the same thing ! theyre chopping up the blue and purple so fine-grained even P3 wide gamut doesn’t suffice

  12. @Brian : if you’re *smart* enough to trust those losers down at the ramp not to steal from your luggage, then feel free be my guest.

  13. How about just, you know, a numbered order? Calling it “Main Cabin 1” when it’s actually the 5th priority is just confusing. We have these numbers, in a predetermined order that everyone knows. Let’s use them!

  14. Yet another time when the airline wants to be able to say they’re trying to do something because they either can’t or won’t address the underlying problem of not enough physical space in the gate area and PA systems that make the gate agent sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher, making it impossible to hear announcements without leaning pretty far in.

    At least this might keep the boarding pylon lines somewhat shorter- the places I see them in use tend to have lines blocking the main hallway area or winding people through adjacent shopping and food service areas.

  15. I wonder if this is what they are testing in the C gates in ATL. The pillars and lanes are gone and just an open area with 2 TV screens by the gate Southwest style, announcing what group is boarding now and the next group to queue up. Seems to actually work well because it opened up the space and the laters groups had nowhere to go.

    Splitting Comfort+ from Sky Priority is not a bad idea though not liking the way they ordered it. But on a typical Monday morning from ATL, that group is probably the most stressful to be in as it’s often 100+ people.

  16. “and will also increase the number of boarding groups to encourage fewer customers to line up in the gate area”

    Anyone who believes this will cut down on the gate vultures lining up as soon as the gate agent starts making announcements is sorely mistaken.

  17. Southwest is the only airline that has an orderly boarding method. Why can’t the others just adopt this? They copy everything else except this one innovation that works.

  18. “What do you make of Delta’s new boarding process?”

    I think legacy carriers in the USA sunk so far in 2018 that reasonable people should do their utmost to abandon them entirely.

    I realize not everyone can do that but it’s time to cash out of the FF programs and bankrupt these crappy airlines.

    JetBlue in contrast continues to prove that you can actually be a US-based airline and serve the people. Which is to say: to not confuse them utterly with constant meaningless chessboard maneuvers

  19. I didn’t think someone could come up with a boarding process worse than United eliminating all 5 lanes…yet here we are.

  20. Use smiley faces. A big toothy grin is first, then a smile, then a flat line, then a sideways meh face, then a frown, then a frown with xx for eyes. Everyone knows where they stand.

  21. Probably put Main Cabin Extra (“MCE) first over priority due to so many priority members putting bags at over the MCE bins and then the MCE bins being full when the passenger sits down. With American I’m nearly always in MCE or Biz/1st and plat so not usually an issue for me unless I’m cutting it close but I see this frequently where MCE’s have to go back to row 20+ for their bags.

  22. What folks seem to miss is that if you’re a platinum medallion, you get upgraded to Comfort+ shortly after booking, so you WILL be moved ahead and essentially be in group 3.

    Really little change will happen here.

  23. “We will begin our boarding process with passengers holding Purple boarding passes, followed by those with SlightlyLessPurple boarding passes. We know you have a choice when you fly…but we hope you never exercise that option.”

  24. The nearest airport to my home that Jet Blue serves is 250+ miles from my house and only flies to Boston from there. And Jet Blue’s ability to handle IRROPS is nowhere in the same league as Delta. Everyone’s got their own decision matrix of what matters most when picking an air carrier.

    Isn’t this something of a case of Delta copying American’s 27 different boarding groups and being a bit twee about it?

  25. The only reason they won’t create a logical number-based boarding order is that you can’t sell ‘boarding zone 4’ as a credit card benefit. At some point, airlines need to decide if they’re better off improving things for their customers or earning a 1/2% revenue increase through credit card deals.

  26. I miss Northwest’s two groups: first class, and general boarding. Yes, it was a free for all in the gate area but it was surprisingly fast. And those who liked to wander up to the gate just before departure paid the price with no bin space. Fun times and great people watching!

  27. So, now, Gold and Platinum Medallion will be placed behind somebody who pays $50-100 more for a seat. I can certainly understand First and Business, of course. But, as a business traveler and generally a last minute leisure traveler, there are generally no Economy Comfort (stupid name, by the way. As opposed to Economy Non-Comfort?) seats left. This just continues to erode the value of Gold and Platinum Medallion status. Not that there was much left to it anyway. You never get upgraded and the Sky Club benefits are now non-existent. Can’t even bring a spouse in. Delta continues to erode the flying experience and this is a slap in the face of their mid tier Medallion members.

  28. @Mike: That‘s how it‘s being handled by most European airlines, for instance Lufthansa: Priority boarding for premium cabins & elites, followed by everyone else. Works quite fast.
    It always amazes me how much US airlines make a science out of the boarding process …

  29. i,m sure i need to go to Uni to understand ,all this, or I will just board, and say i,m with the kids, ?? or maybe do what a load do, say i need special assistance, then when coming off the flight, they must have special dinks on board, as they can run off the plane, Ha Ha,

  30. This is a slap in the face to the colorblind community. My husband will definitely need special assistance as those shades are indistinguishable to him.

  31. In addition to this being more complicated, doesn’t calling out the final boarding group as “basic economy” strike anyone as a little-bit poor-shaming? Like, I get the superfluous praise for the folks with status to butter them up, but it seems like the bland “zone 6” calls a lot less attention to the fact that someone wasn’t willing/able to pay more than the minimum.

  32. If you can afford to buy a plane ticket in the USA (even on Spirit or Allegiant) you aren’t from a poor household. And there are plenty of people who see cheapness and a refusal to pay more than they need to (‘Everyone’s getting to the same airport after all, no matter how much they paid for the ticket!’) as a virtue, especially for a short haul ticket where no segment is more than an hour and a half or so.

  33. Really want to fix this

    Step one: make announcements understandable. Half the time we can only hear mumbles, and have no idea who is supposed to board

    Step 2: display the current boarding group on the monitor in big letters.

    Step 3: enforce boarding order

    Step 4: have at least three different lanes for people to line up behind

    Gate lice happen in part because nobody can see or hear who is boarding, and there are no clear areas for the first waves to line up

    Lastly, I am in the minority, but I think kids and elderly should board LAST.

  34. @JRMW – totally agree that kids should board within the group they would normally belong to, or last. For what’s its worth military members should also board within their paid group. Early boarding families fill the overhead bins with animal cracker motif carry on bags that should instead be placed under the seat. The kids feet don’t even touch the floor; they don’t need the under seat space for their feet.

  35. I see Delta is still seating their credit card holders behind their Comfort+ people. This is one of the few ways in which they really compare poorly to UA or AA. Both of those airlines have mid-tier credit cards that get you priority boarding before anyone else in the main cabin.

    Skymiles are already the Confederate money of airline miles  - now they’ve whiffed the opportunity to actually make their mid-tier credit card worth having at all.

  36. The way I interpret this is that instead of having passengers ignore the boarding order with 6 distinct groups/zones, they will now simply ignore the boarding order with 8 different groups. Nothing I love more about Delta than flying first or business, coming down from the lounge at pre-boarding time and having to push my way through a herd of people jammed in a pack waiting to board, with some of them getting supremely annoyed at me, thinking I’m cutting line.

    Here’s a better plan Delta– hiring a roving employee or two that will keep the priority boarding lane clear and enforce boarding order. These 8 shades of purple will just cause more chaos and confusion.

  37. “Nothing I love more about Delta than flying first or business, coming down from the lounge at pre-boarding time and having to push my way through a herd of people jammed in a pack waiting to board”

    That’s certainly not exclusive to Delta.

  38. @Ed. C “That’s certainly not exclusive to Delta”– true, but I now fly Delta exclusively, so that’s all I care about. If they want to fix the boarding process, making it more complicated without enforcement isn’t going to fix anything.

  39. Up until now, DL had been good about grouping PM with DM whenever possible. Ditching PM down to board with GM in the 4th or 3rd group is a significant downgrade. It sucks and I hope they don’t follow suit in stripping PM from the elite benefits we used to have.

  40. This zone crap is a hilarious North American farce. Even with zones I’ve seen 737s take more than forty minutes to board in the US. My last EI flight on a full A320 was boarded in about 15mins. No zones, just priority boarding lane and then general boarding. The same goes for pretty much every other airline in Europe and Asia that I have flown on, minimal zones/lanes and much faster boarding.

    Who the hell thought going from 6 to 8 zones would be even more efficient!

  41. Setting aside the sun-set color scheme, I think that Delta is trying to do is to provide further differentiation for Comfort+ so that those of us that used to get upgraded to domestic First frequently and are now getting upgraded to Comfort+ feel like we’re getting something because otherwise as a Platinum Medallion I currently board with Comfort+ anyway. It also might encourage a few more folks to pay-up for Comfort+ in order to get their bags on board and above their seat (and not 10+ rows back making them the last people to disembark). This is especially important on the old MD-80/88/90 series with small bins on starboard side or the regional jets where the bins are awful anyway. It seems like every time I’m in C+ they run out of overhead space on the old MDs.

  42. My reaction is the same as the writer’s ; just a name change and a very confusing one. My reaction as a traveller – the same as when I go to Starbucks! I ignore their cutesy size names and just ask for a small coffee or a large coffee. Idiots! Sorry Delta: Ya just can’t brand what is basically a fungible product or service.

  43. This new system is ridiculous, won’t change anything and insults some of their loyal medallion base. I don’t see any wins here.

    If they truly wanted to improve things, they’d implement the standing zone designations everywhere (like they have at some gates in ATL) to help reduce some of the crowding and change the zones so Premium starts at 1, Sky is 2, Main cabin starts at 3. I know from overhearing enough people that some unaware travelers crowd around the gate because they have Zone 1 and they think Zone 1 will be the first thing called. If they’re 2 – they think they’re 2nd. Let’s use that to our advantage by having those folks now at least zone 3 or greater.

  44. some of these comments are dead on. many domestic airports have boarding areas that are so small that it’s basically a zoo. Most importantly, and I can’t overstate this, the traveling public needs to be reeducated about boarding processes, and the only way to do this is to STRICTLY ENFORCE BOARDING PROCEDURES. If you’re in basic economy and you think you’re entitled to cut everyone off and board with business class passengers, then the gate agents need to deny you boarding and make you walk to the back of the line. easy enough.

  45. Airlines are making things much more complicated than needed. I know that they want people to believe there’s more benefits for high level elites so there’s this breakdown. Instead, it should be more simplified.

    Group 1 should be first, business, premium economy or economy with a little extra legroom, elites. On an international flight, maybe pre-board first since international flights board quite early and that would allow first class passengers to sit and enjoy.
    Group 2 should be economy
    Group 3 should be basic economy.

    If I am in domestic first class, I try to do work in the airport and then board at the very end just before the doors close. Otherwise, I board as early as possible to store my bag in the overhead bins in economy class.

  46. @Majik: That‘s exactly what I‘m saying. My latest experience was in Stockholm, where SAS boarded a fully booked A330 bound for LAX in 15 minutes with just two boarding groups …

  47. Very well describe article, the various branded fare names (e.g. ”Discount”, ”Standard” or ”Deluxe”) are used to distinguish fares that include (or exclude) certain services and benefits …

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