United Testing New Boarding Procedures That Minimizes Lining Up in Groups

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I’ll be flying United tomorrow, and I just received a notice to expect an ‘enhanced boarding experience’ at Houston Intercontinental. At select gates at Houston Intercontinental, as well as Los Angeles and Chicago O’Hare, United is testing a new “simplified” boarding process. I remember when they changed to the current five group boarding process in 2013, which was simplified down from seven groups prior to that time. I believe this new test has been going on for a little while already, but this is the first time I have officially encountered it.


This new test reportedly eliminates that need to line up before your group is called if you are in Groups 3 – 5. Currently, the United process doesn’t look all that different than Southwest with everyone lining up in their various groups well in advance of actually getting on the plane, because, bin space.

After the first two priority boarding groups, United is going to board the plane with customers sitting in window seats first and then middle and aisle seats. Presumably Basic Economy is still last in Group 5. To my knowledge, this grouping of 1 and 2 based on first class and elite/credit card status, 3 and 4 based on whether you are in a window, middle, or aisle seat, and ending with Basic Economy, is the same process they have in place already.

The only real difference I am noticing in this boarding test and current procedures is that Groups 3, 4, and 5 will not line-up at their assigned numbers in advance, and instead will board through the Group 2 lane when called. Since people will still be anxious to get their carry-on onboard in an overhead bin before they all fill, maybe now we will just see everyone lined up together up together in one big blob!

Boarding process for the final United 747 flight

United says they are making this change in order to have less crowding and fewer lines at the gate area. They also state that there will be improved digital displays sharing boarding information about the flight.

Given space constraints at many gates, it is a little ridiculous having an entire plane full of people line-up in various lines before getting onboard, though those that want to be as early in their group as possible (ahem, my husband), will continue to loiter near the boarding gate, only now without an official spot to do so in Groups 3 – 5. You can avoid being in Groups 3 – 5 simply by having a co-branded United credit card. Personally, I’m just happy that United brought back priority family boarding in 2016 and continues to have one of the best family boarding policies of the US airlines.

What airline has your favorite boarding procedure? Do you like the idea of United minimizing the pre-boarding line-up process for the later boarding groups?

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  1. It’s like a hamster wheel: United implemented separate lanes for every group and Delta copied them (or at least they have in ATL). Now, United is pretty much copying the old Delta system (which had one lane for priority and another for the remaining groups), but with slightly clearer different signage.

    • Is it? Lining up to secure overhead bin space (United) vs. lining up to get a certain seat or group of seats together and overhead bin space (Southwest); I’ll take the former.

  2. I like Southwest’s boarding method. United’s new boarding procedure seems similar to Southwest’s, where later groups don’t line up until their group number shows in the display.

  3. Does not seem like an improvement. Hope to be wrong on that count. I see the logic of boarding window seats/middle seats/aisle seats in an order, but what about when friends and families intending to sit together in a row and help each other put things in the overhead bins can no longer do this due to “logical” boarding order? A big slow down to me is always someone in the front settling in while everyone is waiting to get past them. Bin space is an issue, but faster boarding would seem to be from the back to the front.

  4. This change is terrible if your not in group 2 or higher, there is no way to try and guarantee overhead space other than rushing for the line when group 2 completes. Or you need to hover around the end of group 2 waiting to line up.

  5. Southwest used to be the best but now they have gamed it to the point where it’s nearly impossible to get a decent Group A spot without paying a ton more. Even paying for Early Bird is usually a low B spot lately for me.
    I like the old or current United lanes even at small gates. It helps keep the group 5 people or novice folks from crowding access to the gate door like with AA boarding.
    Delta isn’t too bad I guess. At least they try to make it clear.
    Spirit isn’t so bad. They like to board early and fast to get the plane in the air. It’s almost like festival seating.
    My biggest complaint is that credit card holders shouldn’t have the same priority group as an elite flyer. AA tries to deny that this is the case even but AA Exec boards the same as Gold.
    Bottom line is all about how the gate agent handles the boarding process. If they are on the ball, clear upgrades, do proper pre-boarding on time, etc. etc. then it goes SO much better.

    What I’d like to see is a Le Mans Start approach. Hold everyone in a big bullpen area in the middle of the terminal like they do at some Euro airports. Then call the flight number at a totally random time when the flight crew is all set and open the doors to the terminal gate hall. Who ever can get to the gate first gets on first. Survival of the fittest. They could also sell tickets along that hallway or put big windows for the lounges on that hall. It would be fun.

    • You don’t fly AA much then…

      It’s first class, exec plat, plat pro and plat, then it’s gold and cc people.

      This system makes much more sense than lumping someone that flies 150k mile a year with some schmuck that flies twice a year and has a card.

      United’ everyone is priority system is just dumb

      • Group 1 for United is not credit card olders…or even 50k per year Gold members for that matter. Group 1 is Platinum, 1k, Global Services, and First Class. Though technically GS is called even before Group 1.

      • Re Gilam: “…. some schmuck that flies twice a year and has a card.”

        Airline credit card holders are “schmucks”? Wow, that’s a bit of an elitist attitude ——

      • Yes and no. For free checked bags, you not only have to purchase the ticket with the card, but you also have to have it opened at the time of flying. I found this out last year. Had cancelled the card a few weeks before flying but had purchased the tickets with the card. Must be currently opened. I still was in Boarding Group 2 though which didn’t make any sense to me–be consistent.

  6. I was on a United flight with this boarding style last week. Even though there are only two boarding group signs, some pax in groups 3-5 lined up in group 2 anyway. When those people got to the front of the line, the agent said their group wasn’t boarding yet and the people simply hovered two feet away. This created a crowd next to the jetbridge doors. I was group 2, so I didn’t see what happened once group 3 was called.

    But it made me think what happens if a group 2 pax is late. Before they could simply go through the group 2 line and bypass later groups. But with everyone using the group 2 line, that won’t work anymore.

  7. I experienced this several weeks ago. All it did was to convert a structured mob of people standing around to an unstructured mob of people standing around.

  8. This is my solution. After group 1 and 2 are boarded but before Group 3, let them invite all who are willing to gate checkin their carry-ons to board. Those folks will be seated fast, gate agents/ ramp employees will get more time to tag and load their carry-ons. There will be enough bin space for all who are boarding after them. Gradually people will realize that there will be space for their carry-ons even if they board very last which would automatically avoid the reason to crowd at the gates.

  9. AA started allowing anyone who voluntarily gate checks their bag to board early, at least they on my last couple DCA flights. That seems to help things calm down. I have status with AA so I never see the entire boarding procedure but usually half the plane is standing waiting to get in line when they call group one.

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