Airline boarding is a mess. Can these changes fix it?

a group of people standing around a bag of luggage© iStock/iStock
As you’ve stood in a crowded and confusing mass of people surging toward an airline boarding gate, you’ve probably thought, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.” Several domestic airlines agree. They’ve introduced new boarding procedures that they claim streamline and speed up the often-frustrating process of lining up and getting onto a flight, from rearranging boarding groups to employing new biometric systems.

“Many of the airline boarding processes don’t work and are a disorganized mess,” says airline analyst George Hobica. “Airlines have an incentive to make them more efficient because they can turn around their flights sooner and keep passengers happier.”

Consider United Airlines. In the fall, the carrier debuted new boarding procedures at more than 1,000 gates internationally after receiving consistent feedback from customers who found boarding to be a stressful experience.

Maria Walter, the airline’s managing director of customer insights and innovation, said that its fliers would often line up to get on the plane as soon as they arrived at their gate, sometimes an hour before boarding began. “They would feel hostage to the line,” she says.

The airline previously had five boarding lanes but now has two color-coded ones. Passengers in Group 1 board through the blue lane, while those in Group 2 board through the green lane. Those in Groups 3 to 5 board through the green lane when it’s their turn.

Walter says that passengers in Groups 1 and 2 tend to be frequent fliers with the airline and may have elite status, while those in Groups 3 to 5 are occasional fliers and prefer to be seated at the gate longer.

In addition to shrinking its lanes, United has installed new display screens at its gates that indicate in large text which groups are currently boarding.

Although Walter declined to give exact numbers, she says that the new procedures have made boarding faster. The airline’s customer satisfaction metrics have also improved, she says.

Zach Honig, editor at large of the travel site the Points Guy, is a frequent United flier who usually boards in Group 1 and says that he didn’t see a noticeable difference after the new process was introduced. “There is still that rush at the gate,” he says.

It might seem most logical for airlines to board window-seat passengers first, followed by those who have middle and aisle seats, but Honig said that he has yet to see such a process in his regular travels on a number of airlines. “Boarding groups are typically based on class of service, what kind of fare they purchased or someone’s elite status, but that may not always be the most organized way to get passengers on board,” he says.

Based on the boarding process it introduced in January, Delta Air Lines seems to disagree: Instead of boarding by a designated zone based on what part of the plane they will be sitting in, customers now board based on the type of fare they purchased (the range goes from basic economy to Delta One, the airline’s name for its business class) or their frequent-flier status. There are eight groups in all, and each group is designated by color. Delta One customers and those with the highest frequent-flier status, for example, are assigned purple, while basic economy customers are assigned navy blue.

According to a Delta spokesperson, the goal of the new process is twofold: It’s meant to make it clearer to customers when they need to board and thus help ease congestion in the gate area.

Alaska Airlines tinkered with its boarding process last summer. Fliers are assigned to one of six groups: First Class, A, B, C, D or E. This last group was added in early 2019 and is for those who purchased nonrefundable fares and who can’t pick their seats in advance.

With the new process, passengers don’t need to approach the gate until their group is called, and according to a blog post on the company’s site, it’s supposed to clarify who needs to board and when. New display screens at gates, along with larger fonts on boarding passes that display a passenger’s assigned group, are also designed to help.

Some airlines are using biometric identification to speed up their boarding. Customers who choose to try the technology don’t need a boarding pass — a camera captures their image at the boarding gate instead, and they board once their identity is confirmed. While the practice has drawn objections from civil libertarians concerned that passenger images could be used for surveillance in violation of privacy rights or could be hacked, airlines seem enthusiastic about it.

Delta, in partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the Transportation Security Administration, debuted the country’s first biometric terminal in Atlanta’s Terminal F late last year. Customers flying direct through the terminal to an international destination on Delta, Aeromexico, Air France, KLM or Virgin Atlantic Airways can use the facial-recognition technology to board a plane. The process saves two seconds for each customer, for a total of nine minutes for a widebody aircraft, according to the airline. Kathryn Steele, a spokeswoman for Delta, said that nearly all of the 25,000 customers who travel through Terminal F each week choose this optional process — only 2 percent opt out.

JetBlue started using biometric boarding in 2017 at Boston’s Logan International Airport and has since expanded it to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Some international carriers are also using biometric identification to board flights departing from the United States. It’s an option for British Airways customers traveling to Britain from Orlando, Los Angeles and JFK, for one. The airline says that the technology has halved its boarding time. In Orlando, for example, 240 customers can now board in 10 minutes instead of 20. According to Chip Garner, a spokesman for the airline, BA operates two flights a day from Orlando to London Gatwick, and up to 4,000 customers are boarded using biometrics every week. (The airline declined to be more specific.)

The Australian carrier Qantas began testing biometric boarding last April at Los Angeles International Airport for its daily flights to Sydney and Melbourne on the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger plane. A spokesperson for the airline says that the technology has helped cut the boarding time for more than 430 passengers from 40 minutes to 30 minutes.

While new boarding groups and biometric identification may sound like promising solutions to lessen the hassles of boarding, some experts are skeptical.

Larry Studdiford, a security consultant for airports and the founder of Studdiford Technical Solutions, a security firm in Alexandria , Va. , said that he doubts they save fliers and airlines time. “You may get on the jet bridge faster, but you’re still going to have the bottleneck of people actually getting on the plane, finding their seats and putting their bags away,” he said. “How much faster can you do that?”

Paul Hudson, the president of, a nonprofit organization that supports the rights of airline passengers, says that the new boarding changes are slight. “You basically see a proliferation of boarding groups,” he says.

Still, compared with the other hassles of flying today, such as delays and getting bumped, boarding is a minimal source of stress, according to Hudson. “Boarding isn’t something we get a lot of complaints about,” he says. “There are bigger issues out there that come with air travel.”

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Vora is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Instagram: @shivanivora78. 

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