In the first true installment of Legacy Lowdown I want to discuss boarding procedures of US legacy carriers. I will discuss the pros/cons of each airline’s boarding procedures below. I hope this information helps you better understand each airlines’ boarding methods and help you move up on the boarding list and never have to check a carry-on again!

United Airlines

United Airlines’ boarding procedures are most favorable to higher tier elites, but also provides priority to lower elite status members. United also has the “best” separation of lines leading to the gate door with numbered signs (1-5). The numbers correspond to the following classifications:

  1. First/Business Classes & United 1K and Platinum MileagePlus status members.
  2. Mileage Plus Gold and Silver members & United MileagePlus Credit Card holders.
  3. Economy
  4. Economy
  5. Basic Economy?

Generally if you are flying coach and do not have a MileagePlug account or StarAlliance status, you are going to be in groups 4 or 5. Boarding in these later groups has little effect on which seat you will be sitting in because seats are all pre-assigned, but you may have a hard time finding space for your carry on.

Pros:

  • I like boarding methods that prioritize frequent fliers. It is nice to know that you will not have to check your carry-on.
  • In theory, this method should prevent overcrowding near the gate door.

Cons:

  • I do not like that this method puts credit card holders on par with customers who fly 25,000 miles to 50,000 miles a year. I think credit cards should board in group 3 given the current number system.
  • Customers who rarely fly with United Airlines may find this methodology confusing.
  • United frequently boards early/late without notice. If you are in the United Club and plan to arrive at the gate at the time of boarding you may be late and be required to check your carry-on. Likewise, it is frustrating to arrive at the gate at the scheduled boarding time and realize you are 15 minutes early.

Overall, the number system seems to confuse the majority of customers. People in group 3-5 seem to always push their way to the front only to be denied boarding or just stand waiting blocking the line. Also, it frustrates me that credit card holders have equal priority to those customers who fly between 25,000 and 50,000 miles annually.

American Airlines

Quite similar to United, American uses group numbers to differentiate the boarding process. The groups are as follows:

  1. First Class Passengers
  2. Executive Platinum and Platinum AAdvantage Members
  3. AAdvantage Gold Members
  4. Priority AAcess Passengers (AAdvantage Credit Cards) / Group 1
  5. Group 2
  6. Group 3

As you can see the gate agent is quite busy announcing each boarding group during the boarding process. Also, it is interesting that the process detailed above does not quite match what American Airlines has listed on their website, but this seems to be the system used on almost every American Airlines flight I have been on.

Pros:

  • I like that American prioritizes AAdvantage elite members ahead of credit card holders.
  • American generally makes all customers flow through a single line to board the plane and although this causes significant congestion I find it easier to deal with than United’s numbered signs method.
  • Generally, the gate agents space out each announcement to maintain a steady boarding process speed.

Cons:

  • If you never fly American the boarding process seems overwhelming.
  • There is a lack of consistency when calling out each elite status group. Occasionally each level is called individually or all levels are called at once. Ultimately, this can cause congestion as Gold elites reach the podium prior to being called (although usually the gate agent does not stop you).
  • The number of boarding announcements often causes passengers to swarm the entrance and spill into the hallways of the airport.
  • Similar to United, American has a tendency to board either early or late without notice.
  • American generally closes the boarding door 10 minutes prior to departure which should be factored in when making a connection.

I really like the way American classifies passengers. American’s boarding system rewards loyalty by making it easier for frequent flyers to get to their seats and stow their carry-on. Gate congestion is common, but it is generally no worse than any other legacy carrier. The worst part of American’s boarding process is that the airline frequently begins the boarding process before the scheduled time. This means any passengers waiting in a lounge or trying to squeeze in a meal may be required to check their carry-on bag even though they arrived at the gate at the scheduled boarding time. Also, early boarding means gate agents may skip over elites for upgrades who are not physically at the gate when the gate agent decides to begin the boarding process.

Delta Airlines

Delta Airlines’ boarding process is a little more simplified than the other two legacy carriers. Delta clearly differentiates each boarding group or “zone” on their website, which can be found here. The list is simply too long and complicated to replicate below

Pros

  • Delta’s boarding zones are fairly concise and easy to understand. Typically monitors near or above the boarding door display what zone is currently boarding / has already been called.
  • If you are using the Mobile App and have notifications turned on, a notification is sent to your phone exactly when the boarding process begins.
  • Delta frequently uses the two lanes General/Sky Priority to prevent overcrowding in the gate area.
  • Delta prioritizes Diamond Medallion members heavily by allowing members to board in the first class boarding group. Platinum/Gold Medallion elites are also prioritized in the Sky Priority “Zone.”

Cons

  • As you can see from the link above, Delta prioritizes its highest elite customers, but is not so generous to Silver Medallion members. Keep in mind Silver Medallion still requires a significant amount of travel to attain.
  • Purchasing discount economy tickets places you in the final boarding “zone” and almost guarantees the gate agent will require you to check your carry-on to your final destination.
  • Zone 1 tends to get overcrowded, especially at Delta Hubs where several customers have co-branded Delta Airlines credit cards.

Similar to the other two legacy carriers, Delta tends to board a few minutes before or after the scheduled boarding time. Delta seems to consistently board roughly 10 to 15 minutes after the scheduled boarding time, but because the Mobile App pings customers exactly when Pre/First Class boarding begins it makes it easy to get to the gate shortly after boarding begins.

Final Thoughts

Going into this post, I thought Delta would come out on top. I frequently explore each airport I visit and tend to spend time in the airline lounge before each flight. Delta Airlines’ mobile app makes it easy to sit around and wait for the boarding notification to ensure you are at the gate on-time. As I was writing this however, I realized that was a function of Delta’ mobile app and would not apply to passengers who do not utilize the app. On that basis, I believe American Airlines has the boarding process most favorable to frequent flyers.

I believe airlines should treat their most loyal customers well and American’s boarding process follows that idea. I like how American allows ALL elite members to board prior to customers who paid a little more for Main Cabin Extra or spend just $90 a year on a co-branded credit card. The only change American should make is to allow Executive Platinum and Concierge Key members to board with the first class cabin.

If I had to rank all three I would say American Airlines is the best, United Airlines is the worst, and Delta Air Lines is in the middle simply because American allows ALL elite members to board prior to credit card customers. Delta is second due to their mobile application functionality.

United Airlines’ boarding process is simply terrible in practice. Flying out of Chicago O’hare, it seems the gate agents have never completed the process before and the number of groups seems to overwhelm customers. Too often do people try to board before their number is called and cause further congestion at the gate door.

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