United Is Testing Out A New Boarding Process

Filed Under: United

While all airlines want to do everything they can to optimize the boarding process and make it as efficient as possible, every airline uses a different method to accomplish that. It’s interesting that even though they all have the same goal, they come to wildly different conclusions about the most efficient way to board planes.

It’s not unusual to see airlines modify boarding processes. For example, in 2017 American modified their boarding process a couple of times. It looks like it’s now United’s turn to test out something new. United is now trialing a new boarding process at select gates at several airports.

Of the legacy airlines, United’s boarding process most closely resembles the Southwest Airlines boarding model, in my opinion. The airline has five boarding groups, and passengers can line up in their boarding group whenever they’d like. There are pros and cons to this system:

  • The benefit is that passengers always know exactly where they need to be, and it’s easy to figure out who is and isn’t supposed to board at a given point
  • The downside is that it causes people to line up to board much earlier than they’d otherwise do so, which causes crowding in the gate area and also diminishes the experience, since more people stand in line stressed rather than sitting down

That’s why United is testing a new boarding process, where we’ll see them eliminate the option of lining up way in advance, even if you’re in the last boarding group. Bobby D in the Ask Lucky forum shares the email he received from United regarding this trial. Here’s how the new boarding process that they’re testing is described:

Select customers will still be invited to pre-board as they are with the current boarding process. Beyond that, here are some of the changes you may see if your gate is testing a new process:

  • Earlier boarding: On select flights, customers traveling in the premium cabin and United MileagePlus Premier 1K members will be invited to board before Group 1.
  • No need to line up before your group is called: Simplified lanes with new signs will allow you to relax at the gate or within the airport longer.
  • Smaller group sizes for select flights: With fewer customers in your group, you’ll experience less crowding while boarding the aircraft.
  • More efficient boarding: Following priority boarding groups, we’ll board customers sitting in window seats first and then middle and aisle seats.
  • Less crowding: Fewer lines will create more space and easier access to the boarding door for customers existing the plane from the previous flight and during pre-boarding.

United will just have two boarding lanes, labeled “Group 1” and “Group 2.” Those passengers (first class passengers and elite members) will be able to line up in advance, and after that passengers in Groups 3-5 (window, middle, and aisle seats) will be invited to be board through the Group 2 lane when it’s time for them to board.

United says that these changes are in response to customer feedback, as they’ve asked for a better boarding process.

What do you make of the new boarding process that United is testing?

  1. The most comfortable boarding process is for elite travellers. I’ve flown a bunch of Airlines predominantly in first class and my top 3 is: Cathay, Qatar A380 and Singapore Airlines

    United and US carriers comfort has been bottomless over the past 10 years

  2. Maybe they can have credit card customers board after all the people who actually earned status through revenue travel. Wishful thinking, I know.

  3. This is/was somewhat like Air Canada’s boarding proceedure. Zone 3/5 will 1/2 sit and 1/2 mill about beyond the lines making it difficult for zone 1 or 2 to make their way through.

  4. Delta started roped lines with signes of group number. People calling it cattle li És but I call it FINALLY. Boarding where all people grouping all together at once because they all want to be first of their group is maddening. I love order even it’s called cattle lines. Happened multiple times when I fell over small luggage put in front of me of a group 3 passenger when I tried to board in first class. Humans will be humans and will stand firm on their spot to be “first” no matter how illogical is and inconvenience others. Creating clearly visible and maintainable order is a great thing.

  5. People will still line up. They will figure out a way, or, even worse, just huddle around the gate so you can’t get through when you are group 3 and all the 4’s and 5’s are standing in the way.

  6. You know, I thought American’s new boarding process with a gazillion group numbers was ridiculous at first… but it actually seems to work fairly well in practice. People still swarm the gate, but unlike my experience flying others in OneWorld (don’t get me started with S7), I consistently get on the plane ahead of everyone else who is supposed to be behind me.


    UA is simply eliminating one more convenience from customers who don’t pay top dollar. Even if you end up in zone 5 (which means you have no status and probably paid the lowest possible economy fare), with the current system you can at least arrive early and be the first in line for your zone, increasing the chances that you will find space for your carry-on in the overhead bins. With the new system, forget it.

    The current system has a benefit that I really appreciate: clarity. Let’s face it, telling people in zones 3-5 to have a seat until they are called is simply not going to work. People in those zones will start lining up no matter what you tell them, because they want their bags in the cabin with them. The current system facilitates that and makes everything easy to understand – you know exactly where to stand. The new system will take UA back to the older chaos of people milling around, blocking access to passengers in the earlier boarding zones. Going back to that is an insanely stupid decision.

    Fortunately, I rarely fly UA anymore…

  8. @Juno, Qatar airways flies an A380….6/7 as a matter of fact (I may be wrong…)
    Now, they have different products in different planes like for example they have reverse herringbone seats in their A350 but they have their Qsuites product in their new 777s. So the A380 has a different product as compared to their 777s….
    So the guy @Endre up there says that he prefers the A380 product to the united airlines and other shitty US carriers!
    Hope you understood now!!!

  9. I don’t like this. It feels like AA without all the numbers. Just recently, I got to a UA gate after boarding because I was in the lounge a bit longer than I wanted to be. It was easy to just walk through my group lane and skip passengers who were behind me in the boarding process. Sure people were lined up already, but it was easy to jump them because of the multiple lanes.

    With this system if you miss your boarding group, forget it. You’re boarding at the end of the current line.

  10. @Andre

    According to the website you will still be able to walk right on.

    “The remaining Groups 3-5 will then board through Lane 2 when called, and Groups 1 and 2 may continue to board through Lane 1.”

  11. So, what I see happening is the group 3-5 flyers will all line up in 3 lines or one huge group at the lane 2 sign trying to be first. I try and sit as long as possible, but most don’t.

    Boarding the window, them middle, then aisle is a pretty good idea.

  12. The current process is clear and easy.
    So just for the « comfort » of people standing in Group5 (or Even group 1!!!) lane 1h before boarding time, you’ll change everything and make it more complicated ?

  13. And how about also enforcing the rules and turning people back when they try to board before they’re called?

    Yeah, the unions will never let that happen.

  14. @Red or Endre or whatever name you are using or will use to reply, I know that. I was just pointing out that he listed Qatar A380 as an airline, when it it isn’t. Also, Cathay and Singapore also have different seats in their business classes as well.
    Hope you understood now!!!

  15. This isn’t going to do a darn thing about gate lice — they don’t (can’t?) read nor pay attention.

    Also, if the airline systems screw this up, do you get a free beating?

  16. The desperate need to board first is tied to lack of overhead space. The shorter the flight, the more likely everyone is to have rollaboards. I am often in domestic first, and I still find if I board at the end of group 1, I may have to go back to economy to find a place for my bag.

    I find under the current system, the gaggle at the front of the line usually comes from a lack of space to properly line up. When there is lots of space at the gate, the lines usually form up in a recognizable fashion, and you know you are in the line for your group. But that is often not the case, and I will be in group 1 and in front of me there are not only group 2 people hoping to be first in group 2, but also group 3, 4 and 5 people spilling over from their lines. It is just a crowd. When boarding begins, you have to be assertive enough to ask people if they are in group 1, and march right in front of them if they are not.

    I don’t know if the new procedure will help, but good to know that they recognize that the gaggle at the boarding lanes is a problem.

  17. This window, middle and aisle process won’t work. People traveling with others on the same PNR (i.e. families, couples, friends, etc) will want to board together not in separate groups and will queue up together. I predict a big bottleneck during the window boarding group for that reason.

    This boarding scheme also assumes everyone is at the gate when its time to board which is rarely the case which causes some bogging down in the effiency of the boarding process.

  18. Turkish Airlines has it right, biz and first class get to wait in the lounge until the rest of the plane is boarded, then they board last and not have to deal with the crowds. And, yes, they ensure no one else uses their overhead bins!

  19. This seems like a step backward to me. I’m group 1 on UA, and now I feel like I’m going to have to get to the gate earlier than I was before so I’ll actually be able to find the group 1 line.

    Airlines need to realize that boarding is essentially a prisoner’s dilemma type situation. Everyone sitting down is an unstable equilibrium, and as soon as one person lines up early everyone else has to follow suit or end up left in the most disadvantageous position re: overhead space. Once you realize this is basically game theory, you can use game theory to solve it, which in this case would have to be by modifying the ‘payouts’.

    You actually see this with group 5 now, as group 5 is basic economy. They don’t line up ahead of time as they don’t have carryons to stow, so no incentive to race onboard.

  20. This seems like a pointless change, as the actual boarding priority isn’t any different. This only benefits non-Global Services premium cabin fliers. Previously, only Global Services could pre-board before Group 1. Now it’s Global Services, premium cabin(s), and 1Ks! So I guess Group 1 is now just Platinums? And Group 2 is credit card holders plus Silvers and Golds? Now they are all effectively just one group.

    I agree there is no chance this will stop people in groups 3-5 from lining up in advance. Also, currently group 3 is for people with window seats, 4 is for middles, and 5 is for aisles. None of this is changing.

  21. Reading the United blurb above, it seems that if I’m travelling with my wife, and she’s sitting in a window seat, and my seat is next to hers, we have to board at different times. Surely this isn’t so.

  22. Experienced this “New” procedure at LAX last weekend. Group 3 was already lining up to board before Group 1 and 2 were done. Instead of 5 lines there were 2 lines and a big blob of people. As long as there is limited overhead space and luggage fees people will crowd to get that precious “free” space.

  23. I experienced this last week at LAX for the commuter flight to SFO (short flight, more rollerboards). Seemed much more chaotic than what I experienced at SFO flying down to LAX with the usual dedicated 1-5 lanes. It may have been due to the large size of groups 1 and 2, which both lined up into and down the corridor a good 25 minutes before boarding. I was a bit further back in the Group 2 line, and noticed a lot of Group 3 and 4 ticket holders standing around the Group 2 line. In short, I think this new boarding process adds more chaos to the process. I believe overhead space was filled not too long after group 3 started boarding.

  24. Lucky leads off his post with “Of the legacy airlines, United’s boarding process most closely resembles the Southwest Airlines boarding model, in my opinion. ”
    Since Lucky doesn’t fly Southwest, he apparently has no idea how different, and much more preferable, Southwest boarding process is. Each passenger is given a sequential boarding number as they check in and passengers are boarded in that sequence. You only need to line up when your group of numbers are called to board and you insert yourself into the line according to your boarding number. Unlike United’s process there is no need to line up until you are actually ready to board.

    The current United process resembles the cattle call lines that Southwest used to use but abandoned many years ago.

  25. Board premium cabins last (and keep the bins shut)….include premium economy in that mix and then you might have something that actual works for elites. And please explain to me why it is so hard for airlines to deliver bags in a timely manner? Baggage delivery and fees are at the heart of these problems.

  26. @Golfingboy:

    Yes, that’s the problem. The window-middle-aisle sequence works if you assume that every passenger is a single-traveling passenger. Not sure what percentage of the main cabin is passengers traveling alone. But if the bulk of it is families or groups, then the process would be less efficient as families will want to board together. If it’s a group of adults you can still require they board in turn, but if it’s parents and children, you can’t separate them.
    May be the solution is parents with small children first (or last) and then the window-middle aisle.

    Also I can’t recall the source but there was a study that came out some years ago showing that the quickest way to board an aircraft (assuming single door entry) is to board window-middle-aisle, but by alternate rows. That would minimize local bottlenecks.

  27. To those speaking so disparagingly of those in a rush to board the plane first, the reason people do so is not to be assholes; it’s to ensure overhead bin space. If you’re flying in F, you’re (mostly) guaranteed bin space.

  28. @DB – AA tries to do the same thing. A good amount of times I fly them the general boarding walks right through priority as the boarding calls are so rushed and people just file in.

  29. I tried this process at LAX a couple weeks ago. Gate lice still occurred but it wasn’t really a problem because the Group 1 and 2 lines snaked nowhere near the front of the gate. They actually went behind the gate agent podium.

    I was in group 1 so not sure how 2-5 went, but I enjoyed the process.

  30. A legacy airline should really try a southwest style model where people are given a ground and a boarding number based on some metric. Southwest is by far the best. You know your place in line, so there is no need to get up early. You can casually stroll up as your group is boarding.

  31. @Tom

    My only beef with the WN process is that many airports are really designed for it. Take DCA, where at some of the gates it’s nearly impossible to get through to the other side of the line.

  32. I’m actually excited about this. I hate how long the lines get, spilling into the walkways. I think AA’s process works really well and I don’t see why other airlines can’t just emulate that.

    The bigger issue UA needs to solve is that they’ll start boarding a 737 or A320 45 minutes early, which is absurd.

  33. totally agree with Neil. I think airlines should adopt the WN boarding process. It’s fair and it reduces unnecessary hassle. I think this process does really get rid of the gate lice problems we are seeing these days.

    with WN, there’s no need to get in line well before boarding begins and you do not need to rush to your line to be able to board earlier. It’s all based on the time you check in. You can’t get anymore fair than that.

  34. The current UA boarding process is fine. If they change to the above it will only create more chaos at the gate.

    @Luke Curious how Turkish handles the boarding process from non-Turkish airports like in the USA? I’m flying them next month from USA to IST to Italy and back

  35. Hi Guys!

    Inflight to SEA and went through the ‘new’ boarding process.

    We left LAX from 86B, there were overhead LCDS only showing boarding groups 1 and 2, parallel to each other. Signs all over if in group 3-5 to please have a seat.

    Those needing additional assistance were boarding first, then uniformed military, then group 1 (I’m in F, just a MP Gold). There was zero mention of GS/1K.

    I should have hung around to see how they handled the other groups`

  36. As long as most of the public are animals there will always be some problems with getting on the plane. However my experiences with Southwest have generally been the most efficient and orderly so I’m happy to give it a try. And as far as you saying you just have people in a line instead of sitting…… what airports do you go to where there is even enough seating anyway. It’s usually like 2000 people 150 chairs and half of those are animals using them as suitcase storage.

  37. I always check a bag to avoid the need for bin space. I only carry my small satchel with computer etc. because I can put it under the seat and still have room for my feet. Then I board dead last and take my aisle seat (which I pay for). Then the plane pulls away from the gate. Works like a charm.

  38. I don’t think any has pointed out that United tried their proposed boarding process years ago and give it up because of the issues mentioned above. BTW that process has a name WILMA — Window Middle Aisle.

  39. Personally, I miss the old Northwest boarding routine. After first class and the elites boarded, they would just call for “General Boarding”. Yes, it was dreadful but it was also surprisingly efficient. It gave you a good incentive to be on-time at the gate!

  40. With various mechanical equipment that’s often in the forward-most overhead bins, and with the first row of seats not having any under-seat stowage, there’s usually nowhere to put your bag if you’re the last person to board a full F cabin. The idea that one could just waltz onto the plane at the very last minute through this new Lane 1 would only be possible if you had little or no baggage with you.

  41. United’s current boarding process is a disaster because the group distribution is ridiculous and most of the flight seems to be in group 2 always. On most flights it is rare to really see anybody in groups 4 and 5 especially domestic. With gold status and a United mileage plus club card with a $450 annual fee that I spend handsomely on each year I was in group 2 along with everybody without premier status who just had an Explorer card with the $95 yearly fee. Absolutely zero reward for loyalty or premier status. I shouldn’t have had to reach Platinum just to get bumped ahead of those without premier status. The only times I did not line up early I was forced to gate check a bag.

  42. I don’t like the new system and hope they never implement!!! The current system works pretty good. Whoever wants to stand in line first is up to them. But now, those with aisle seats will be forced to board later, not very fair. The current system works fine and not broken, so why change? Especially the change is not better!!

  43. @neil – yeah it actually was up until relatively recently that they did Window, Middle, Aisle for non-elites. Even after they had the 5 current boarding groups and introduced the 5 lanes at every gate, group 3 was always window, then middle seats in group 4 and aisle in group 5. I only noticed a change when they introduced basic economy and had to have group 5 based on the baggage restriction.

  44. Umm…looks like the same process as the old red carpet? Also, they were trialling a dynamic flat screen monitor process at ORD a couple years ago. That was more Southwest like. I guess that cost too much to implement.

  45. People will swarm the gate and people will not be able to get through. This happens at the last few gates in LGA, where United only has room for group 1 and 2 and still 3-5 “line up” and you have to push through. I’ve literally almost seen a fight, a wife had to hold the husband back from a group 1 person pushing through, insults were thrown on both sides, vulgar and about weight…

    Also people line up for bin space…and this doesn’t solve that. If anything it’ll make people more anxious because at any given moment you don’t know where you stand or how much longer until your group. If you are group 4 and group 2 is boarding, you have no idea how long group 3 will take so you can’t go far off if you still want to be early in 4…

    I just wish United would delineate between silver / gold, who spend thousands on the airline, and people who spend $95 a year, or even the club card and explorer. The jump from spending $95 a year to $9,000 is big, seems like there is room for group 1.5, just sayin…

  46. I’ve worked out a very efficient boarding process using 26 boarding groups who are called during the boarding process by a GA using interpretive dance.

  47. First/Business Class…board first and/or last or when arrives at gate with overhead reserved and specific to seat assignment. The rest? This wouldn’t be an issue IF we knew that our bags would fit in the overhead when we boarded. Currently it’s first man gets any desired space available and good luck to anyone who follows. .Each assigned seat should have an allotted assigned overhead baggage slot to fit the mandated sized bag where no other seat occupant could place their bag. Overhead space is assigned by seat. If that would happen then there would be no rush to be first in line to ensure getting that coveted overhead baggage space. Overhead baggage slot would be guaranteed to be there just as the seat assignment. That is always my concern when I can’t get first class….it’s about the baggage! The rest of boarding? Who cares? We all depart at the same time and arrive at our destination at the same time.

  48. @Carole – if everyone brings a rollerboard there isn’t enough space in the overheads for every seat to have a ‘dedicated’ space on most 737 or A32x’s.
    I’ve found recently many of my United flights have had much better ‘policing’ of overhead bins in First class by the FA’s (even one fantastic FA who was guarding a single overhead bin space at the front of economy on an A319 for me as I was the last first class passenger to arrive). There are still issues particularly on the old 737’s where the bin doors have gap filling plastic barriers and the taper at the front of the plane gets dramatic.
    Boeing’s new “space bins” that United, Delta and Alaska are installing (along with some of the interior retrofits Delta has done of their older planes) allow rollerboards to be places on their side which could eliminate the overhead space issue though….

  49. What about couples or groups flying together? In this system, the window-seat passenger will board and then wait for his or her travel companion to board with the next group.

    Personally, I hate the economy boarding process to the point that I would be happier flying in a box in the cargo hold.

    The boarding “problem” is caused by overcrowding. Until all airlines are willing to address this problem (i.e., higher ticket prices, less seats, free checked bags that don’t get lost), there will always be inefficient aircraft boarding.

  50. Basically it doesn’t _really_ matter which way you board time-wise unless you board back-to-front (which is, to my memory, what a lot of European charters and Transavia (used to) do): https://mythresults.com/airplane-boarding

    Looking at the satisfaction rate, United’s approach actually scores pretty well. I’m sure they didn’t take relational aspects into account 😉

  51. @Aaron – I agree. The boarding with American has been better since they introduced the new boarding process there. However, having a plane with 135 seats and seating for only 50 at the gate is the largest problem. I check bags anymore so I don’t have to deal with all the “drama”.

  52. FFS. Just go back to the PM UA way of boarding. It was the single most efficient way that also recognized status. F/J/GS/1K over the red carpet, and at any time, then everyone else over the Y lane, with *G getting first shot, then silvers, then windows/middles/aisles. It worked and the attempt to Continentalize everything failed.

  53. @Chris Credit Card customers actually pay for their perks unlike others who get it free from doing something they needed to do anyway (flying)

  54. United will not deliver a good customer experience with this proposed window/center/aisle boarding process. Do they really not understand that people traveling together (couples, elderly or otherwise, families, even those with teenage children, friends, relatives, etc.) want to board together? I usually fly United, but I do not expect to be separated from my spouse or teenage child when boarding an aircraft, and will not fly any airline that requires me to do so. This is not about delivering better customer service – this is about lowering aircraft time at the gate, getting the plane back into the air as quickly as possible, because a plane on the ground makes no money. There are good solutions to improving the boarding process, but that may require United to spend a little money. But what if spending a little money resulted in a huge increase in customer satisfaction and corresponding increase in passengers? That would be a win-win for passengers and United.

  55. What am I missing here? Doesn’t this mean that passengers with aisle seats are penalized by having the worst access to overhead bins?

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