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Recently, I took my first flights with United Airlines for over a decade and while a number of observations came out of those flights (observations that will come up in future posts), one thing that my recent experiences appear to suggest is that United should probably consider changing how it numbers its boarding groups.
What I Noticed
I have no worthwhile status with United (I have Silver status courtesy of my Marriott Titanium status) but I was booked into the First Class cabin and that entitled me to a boarding pass with Group 1 printed on it.
I was a little surprised when I saw Group 1 on my pass as even when traveling in domestic First Class with oneworld Emerald status on American Airlines I’m usually in Group 2, but I didn’t give this apparent oddity much thought until I saw United’s boarding in action.
When you walk up to a United departure gate you’ll see signs inviting those with Group 1 and Group 2 written on their boarding passes to line up, and the same signs suggest that anyone in a lower group should take a seat and wait to be called. Nothing unusual in any of that.
On my flight and around the time that boarding was due to start, the (very friendly) gate agent asked passengers with small children and passengers who need a little extra time to board (because of poor health, not due to unexplainable incompetence) to come forward for pre-boarding.
Nothing unusual there – it’s a call that you’ll hear at pretty much every airport gate around the world.
Next, the agent called forward any active members of the military traveling in uniform and as it quickly became clear that no one was coming forward, this started a shuffle forward of people with Group 1 on their boarding pass as they (incorrectly) expected to be called to board next.
I didn’t move as I was pretty sure that Global Services members would have their own call and, sure enough, Global Services were next to be invited to board. As the GS members made their way to the front of the Group 1 line to board, a number of Group 1 passengers took this as a cue to try to do the same because they thought Group 1 had been called and that the rest of us were in the wrong line (or not paying attention). They were soon put right by the more seasoned travelers in the line and order was restored.
With GS members boarded, even I was expecting Group 1 to be called to board next so I was a little surprised when the call went out for 1K members to come forward for boarding (through the swathes of people in the Group 1 line). Once again this was a trigger for some Group 1 passengers to start trying to push forward to the front of the in the belief that it was their turn to board and once again, they had to be put right by others ahead of them. In a few cases, a little forcefully.
Then, finally, after approximately 30 people had already boarded the aircraft, after a few barbed comments had been exchanged among some of the passengers, and after a little more pushing and shoving had ensued, Group 1 was called to board.
If you take a look at United’s boarding process page you’ll see that the airline has designed its boarding order in a way that allows it to make relatively unimportant customers feel like they’re valued by the airline (it gives them Group 1 boarding rights which sounds good), while giving the passengers it actually considers important, the right to “pre-board”.
With most airlines pre-boarding is set aside for the elderly, the less mobile, and families with small children, but with United this is expanded to also include unaccompanied minors, active members of the military, Global Services members, and 1K members.
The reality is that if you’re flying with United and you have Group 1 boarding privileges, you’re only going to be invited to board after 6 other categories of passengers have boarded first.
There’s actually nothing wrong with this as United is well within its rights to board who it wants when it wants, but its choice to do this clearly causes confusion.
Right now we’re living through times when gate agents are making announcements while wearing a mask (so their voices cannot be heard clearly above the other general gate area noise) and when the majority of people traveling are not seasoned flyers or flyers used to dealing with the fact that different airlines can do similar things in very different ways.
If you give an infrequent traveler a boarding pass that says “Group 1” on it in big letters, that traveler is going to expect to board the aircraft pretty soon after boarding is called and they will struggle to understand why so many others are boarding ahead of them…especially if they can’t really hear what that gate agent is announcing.
Moreover, with some aircraft now carrying loads last seen pre-pandemic (my flight had 17 people on the standby list and there wasn’t a spare seat to be seen anywhere), the scramble for overhead bin space is back on (especially in the First Class cabin). This means that anyone whose boarding expectations haven’t been managed is more likely to get irate…and that’s when the trouble starts.
The solution is simple. United should stop massaging some of the more delicate egos and split out Global Service Members, uniformed military personnel, and 1K members into a new “Group 1” and bump all the other boarding categories down one level.
This way United’s pre-boarding will look like pre-boarding on most other airlines, the boarding order won’t change, and people’s expectations will be better managed. Sure, a few Platinum and Gold member’s egos may be bruised and some passengers booked into a premium cabin may not feel quite so special…but who cares?
Helping passengers understand when they can genuinely expect to board is considerably more important than keeping a few delicate egos in one piece and it would probably go a long way to making the gate area a lot less like a melee and a bit more civilized.
It would be nice if United made a little more effort to help less experienced flyers understand when they can expect to board their flight by not awarding Group 1 boarding status to people who then will be expected to watch as a significant number of other passengers board ahead of them.
For those of us more accustomed to flying and rolling with the differences in how airlines choose to handle boarding, United’s boarding groups aren’t an issue. For the less experienced flyer desperate to secure overhead bin space, however, watching 20 – 30 people board ahead of them when they expected to be one of the first to board can be disconcerting…and that never leads to anything good.