An article in The Street attacks United Airlines by comparing it to Southwest Airlines and arguing its boarding process is punitive and meant to shame customers. I find that argument wholly unpersuasive.
Is The United Airlines Boarding Process “Unpleasant” And An “Intentionally Terrible Situation?”
The premise of the story is that the Southwest Airlines boarding process is orderly, where everyone is assigned a group letter (A-C) and number (1-60) that makes it very clear when you can board, and United’s is punitive. Specifically, United boards by groups and when groups 3-5 are called, it becomes a free-for-all scramble to board as quickly as possible in order to secure limited overhead bin space.
Once you hit the later groups, however, things change. Overhead bin space runs out toward the end of the third group making it important for people looking to carry a bag on to board earlier in that group. That’s where the lack of numbers or any form of organization creates a mess.
People in the third group, and later the fourth and fifth never get asked to line up. The groups are sometimes called and at other times, know they’re supposed to board because a digital sign changes.
This creates chaos like Black Friday back when doorbuster deals were a thing. It’s a dangerous sort of chaos and it’s something United Airlines has done very intentionally.
Chaos seems like quite an overstatement to me. Indeed, if you are in groups 3-5 you do have to wait for your group number to be called, but it is clearly announced by both the gate agent and on overhead monitors. Does that cause a rush to board? Yes, it does. But Walmart Black Friday style? No, not even close.
And the author misses a key point:
The basic economy system is designed to make people who pay less for their tickets feel like they’re a lower class than people who pay more. That would be fine if it was explicit. The airline could say that people in the fourth and fifth boarding groups can’t bring a bag that needs to go in an overhead bin but doing that would defeat the airline’s unstated goal…
The airline wants the basic experience to be bad so you’re more willing to pay up next time. It could offer low fares with fewer perks along with dignity, but it has chosen to not do that in order to maximize future revenue.
Indeed, United is attempting to penalize those who book Basic Economy tickets. But United stands apart from American Airlines and Delta Air Lines in making clear that passengers traveling in Basic Economy cannot bring a full-size carry-on bag onboard.
In reality, if there is a “bait and switch” it is American and Delta who are guilty because they make it seem like you can bring your bag on if you fly in basic economy, but in reality, the overhead bin space is often gone by the time you board. United at least lets you know that if you buy a basic ticket, you cannot bring a bag onboard. There is no surprise. The author is wrong: the airline does warn you in advance.
Another point: the United Next initiative will mean all narrow body planes have new overhead bins in which bags can be stored vertically and (presumably) all bags will fit. Once that occurs, there will be no need to hastily board any longer.
I’m not sure why the author chose to compare United to Southwest when United is very clear that Basic Economy passengers cannot take a carry-on item onboard. Is United’s boarding process ideal? No. But the idea that “United Airlines only wants people in the first two boarding groups to have a pleasant, orderly experience,” seems rather absurd.
“If you fly United on a basic economy fare without buying extras, recognize that you’re Jack, not Rose, on the Titanic. It’s a class system and while that’s legal, it’s not pleasant.”
Last I checked, United is not putting basic economy passengers on the wing…
@Matthew, UA’s boarding process does not make a ton of sense to someone like myself who does not fly UA with any regularity.
My last UA flight, I paid for First Class and had to board at the tail of group 1 instead of a separate group for First Class like most other airlines do it resulting a rather long wait in the jetway.
I realize that it is a small niggle in the scheme of things, but UA is the least premium of the Big 3 at this point and it shows in all kinds of ways.
DELTA which is the airline I fly the most boards First Class first and then group 1, I cannot speak to the economy boarding process as I try and never fly economy if I can help it.
Oh, boo hoo. Fly UA more often and maybe your F privilege will be able to board with us 1Ks. At UA, loyalty tops how much you paid for your ticket. Be happy your Delta-loving fleshing got to board with Group 1.
Clearly you don’t fly Delta either with any frequency, if you did you’d notice Delta also customers with disabilities, military, families with small children, Delta360 members first before calling for first class customers to board. On United they do the same with pre boarding and Group 1 on United is first class.
Delta calls it first class for boarding United calls its group 1 which is the group for first class boarding. What is the difference between being one of the last to board if you actually were in first class on either of these carriers. Whether flying United or Delta 20 first class passengers can’t all fit through the doorway onto the jet bridge all at once.
It’s just a weak attempt at social justice class warfare judgmental anti-capitalist propaganda. I guess it worked since we paid attention.
“social justice class warfare judgmental anti-capitalist propaganda”
I had to read this line about six times. Spent more time on it than the article.
Because it’s the sort of dumb shit said by stupid assholes who have no firing neurons because it’s Fox News or OAN told them to say.
Wow, Libtard much, a-hole?
Exactly, and Mayor Pete should immediately form a group of (very) progressive-leaning “elites” who would study reparations for Basic Economy passengers.
As a lifelong moderate in all things in life, something I have never understood about folks on either side of the US political spectrum is why is everything political?
I read the article and politics not once crossed my mind, yet it obviously crossed your mind and the mind of others like you, not a criticism, just an observation.
I am not attacking you or in any way trying to be argumentative, I just am curious as to why you and folks like you on both sides of the political spectrum see almost if not everything through political lenses.
You are so right. I came in from LHR to IAD last night. I had the most amazing trip to London until some idiot at customs is starting in about the passport line and Biden. As if passport lines have never been backed up before. It’s pathetic. Everyone wants to blame everyone else for everything.
Because Boomer losers with no life whose kids now hate them for being bigots have to make their lives *about* something, and the easiest thing for those will little to no mental capacity beyond innate functions like breathing is to make their entire persona about politics. God I wish Covid had been more effective on those idiots.
Oh what’s that? Pay less expensive fare, get less perks? Sh1t, sounds like it’s working as intended.
Oh by the way, that Titanic reference is cringe AF. Wanna be Rose? buy First Class, lmao, don’t expect it from Basic Economy you entitled dumbass.
The passengers are generally more to blame than the airlines. If people actually listened to the announcements, boarded when it was their turn, and used the overhead bins efficiently and as they were intended, none of what the author discussed would be as big of a problem.
Absolutely right. I have sometimes seen agents go very fast through the process and because people weren’t listening I ended up being first on more than once as a 1k and then saw all kinds of people who could have boarded early being stuck in the middle of boarding.
Or put their carryons under the seat, if possible, or into the overhead bins correctly, we’d have more space. On more than one ocassion I’ve come across the bin above my seat being partially full despite the entire row – on both sides – being empty as somebody further back in the plane put their bag above my seat. I take it out and tell the FA someone left luggage on the plane. It’s been deplaned a couple of times. Sit further back, store your bag back there. I have no qualms about screwing over an entitled passenger.
Unless you are in first class or MCE/Delta Comfort/Economy Plus, you aren’t entitled to the overhead space above your seat. Even then, you are only entitled to the overheads in your cabin but not necessarily above your seat. Otherwise, it’s first come first serve. I mean, typically flight attendants start proactively instructing passengers to put their bags in the first available overhead bin once space starts to dwindle.
If anyone is entitled, it’s you for thinking bags should be removed from the overhead above your seat if they are full by the time you board. Just because people are sitting in the back doesn’t mean they have to gate check if the bins there are full but there’s open overheads further up front in coach when they board. Either find overhead space further back/gate check your bag or pay more next time to board sooner or sit in a cabin where you are pretty much guaranteed space relatively close to your seat.
I do get that it’s frustrating that people sometimes put their luggage further up front when there is still plenty of space in the back, but the airlines have basically conditioned us to treat overhead bins as a scarcity and to grab a free one when we see it, especially if the back already looks pretty full of boarded passengers. We are only entitled to overhead bins in our assigned cabin, and in regular coach, only if there’s still space available.
You seem to be a complete prick. Goneat a dick.
If you had paid for boarding in a higher priority group, then you wouldn’t need to get your panties bunched up because someone higher up the food chain got the overhead bin first. Loser.
Best One Yet
We flew on a United 737 Max for the first time recently, and we were amazed at the extra space in the new overhead bins. We have a bag that is supposedly legal size, but I would always have to force the handle in on the top (apparently the bag is legal but the manufacturer didn’t worry about the handle). In the new Max bin, there was plenty of room on top of my problematic handle. Hopefully this will help the difficult bin situation.
Those large bins are a double edged sword. Yes, they are great in that you can fit more bags in them and yes they are great that REGULATION sized roller boards will fit sideways.
I have always said, when you make larger bins people will take advantage and bring larger bags. It’s a royal pain in the ass when people bring on larger rollers, place them sideways and viola you cannot close the bins because the bag is too big.
Now you have to reorganize that entire bin or other bins then move the oversized bag which is probably over 50pounds…..
Having said that I would rather have the larger bins than the shitty small bins you get on the 737-700’s b
Gate agents know how big an overhead bin is. They will tell passengers when a bag is too big and needs to be gatchecked.
As Star Alliance Gold I can take my carry-on and backpack and my wife can take her bags too.
Seat assignments are the crap shoot and lately we have been assigned a lot of crap seats.
$300 more for seat selection is a choice I choose to reject. I get crappy seats at times, but I prefer to save that $600 for our other travel expenses.
12 hours of discomfort is forgotten after 12 days in a good hotel room.
Not if you are 6′ 4″ or taller!
I saw the same article and I agree completely with your assessment. United has one of the best — along with American and Delta — boarding processes. It’s way better than Southwest — or gulp, Turkish Airlines — where there almost always seems to be chaos and irrationality. I find that United does a good job with its boarding process, as do generally also American and Delta. They compare favorable to almost all airlines in the world, in this regard. Now when it comes to the food, that’s a different story… 🙂
Sorry, but United’s boarding process sucks. I normally fly business class, and even then when I am in group ‘1’, United loads at least 4-5 groups of people in front of me (children, military, 1K’s, etc.) It’s weird….if you want to load those groups first, call them group 1, 2, 3, etc., and other groups sequentially.
And last week I flew ‘premium economy’ for the first time in several years and it was a hot mess. Despite sitting in front of the UA counter at the gate and in full view of the gate agents I missed my group number and ended up being one of the last people on the plane. The gate agents never announced group numbers beyond 1 & 2, and never updated the signage at the gate notifying passengers which group number they were loading. And since passengers kept filling the queue, the gate agents never announced the final few groups. It was ridiculous.
This is a chaotic system designed by the airlines to squeeze a few extra dollars out of some, and allow others to play games. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. By charging for just about everything on an airline, they have created even more chaos. The amount of time wasted due to people trying to cheat the system, and save themselves a few minutes upon landing wastes everyone’s time. I can’t imagine the amount of time saved by eliminating this chaos would outweigh any cost savings for the airlines.
AA & DL also pre-boards children, military, disabled etc.
The suggestion that the process on Southwest is more civilized than United is laughable. On every WN flight I’ve been on, people are constantly walking up and down the aisle trying to find seats together and it ends up with a back up of people in the aisle and flight attendants have to tell people to take whatever is free. The one thing WN does do well and that United should adopt is good signage so people know where to stand. Then again, WN makes it a race to check in at 24 hours if you don’t want a horrendous seat and no bin space so people place great importance on their boarding number, which isn’t as much the case on the legacies with assigned seats.
I’m very skeptical that the new bins will solve anything – on every flight I’ve been on with the Boeing sky interior they end up having to gate check anyway. Maybe it’s time to revisit bag fees on the legacies for classes above basic economy-I think that would help the process a decent amount. Even then, I’m sure people would bring bags that are too large and need to be gate checked anyway and throw a tantrum when they don’t get their way. The whining about basic economy is also getting old- it’s an inferior product because people didn’t want to pay $20-30 more on an itinerary that’s usually a few hundred dollars and you’re given the option to buy up if you care about the things that basic economy doesn’t have when booking.
Honestly I’d argue that 80% of the frustration these days with air travel is that people amazingly lose the ability to follow simple instructions when they fly. I was on a 777 from ORD-SFO a month ago that left 20 minutes late because people were apparently incapable of comprehending the simple act of sitting down and stowing their bags in a timely manner.
The whole boarding process is a sham….
– Wheelchair folks who develop a stride up the gateway upon de-planing
– Those in puberty attached to Mommy’s hip claiming to need extra time to board
– Group 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 folks crashing the gate agent
– Cell phone goes dead while swiping the boarding pass because they Twitted for 60 solid minutes pre-boarding
– Reserved seats on the first row on SW when you’re the 8th warm body thru the door
– Your carry-on removed from the overhead to make room for someone’s jacket, laptop, or purse
– Entitled PAX who wants you to move to the rear in order to sit next to their boyfriend/girlfriend/etc.
The most stressful point of the journal has drifted to the boarding process…
Having read the article, I’m not convinced the author even flies with any airlines regularly. Their main complaint, as far as I can tell, is that groups 3-5 (what United calls general boarding) all board through the same lane, resulting in them being unable to line up ahead of time. The author contrasts this with groups 1 and 2 who get dedicated space to line up before boarding starts.
But, as anyone who has flown any US airline not called Southwest would know, United’s two lane boarding process is the industry standard. Every single US airline, from Delta and American to Frontier and Spirit, all use the two lane boarding system, with a priority line on one side and all general boarding through the other. General boarding groups do not have dedicated lines to line up on any airline. The call-out of United specifically (and the conflation of Basic Economy, a specific fare class, with passengers in general boarding, which comprises all economy passengers) leads me to believe this is an infrequent flyer who has exclusively flown Southwest in the past and flew with United as their first and only non-Southwest flight in years if not ever.
Probably not someone qualified to write about this topic, but perhaps they were running up against an aggressive quota of articles they had to churn out so they just wrote the first thing that happened to them. Perhaps this was even written on a UA flight they purchased during the Southwest meltdown.
Comedian Bill Burr has a few minutes of hilarity describing the boarding process. I’m sorry I don’t have a link (my Google search capability has flopped for some reason) but a quick search should find it for you if you want a good laugh.