Standing 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 boarding procedures that they claim streamline and hasten the often-frustrating process of lining up to get onto a flight, from rearranging boarding groups to using biometric systems based on facial recognition.
"Many of the airline boarding processes don’t work and are a disorganized mess," says airline analyst George Hobica, founder of AirefareWatchdog.com. "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.
Maria Walter, the airline’s managing director of customer insights and innovation, said its fliers would often line up to get on a 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, and those in Group 2 board through the green lane. Fliers in Groups 3 to 5 then follow in sequence through the green lane.
Walter says that passengers in Groups 1 and 2 tend to be frequent fliers with the airline and may have elite status; those in Groups 3 to 5 are occasional fliers and usually stay seated at the gate longer.
In addition to consolidating its lanes, United has installed new display screens at its gates that indicate in large text which groups are currently boarding.
Walter says that the new procedures have made boarding faster and that customer satisfaction metrics have improved, though she did not provide details.
Zach Honig, editor at large of the travel site the Points Guy and a frequent United flier who usually boards in Group 1, says he didn’t see a noticeable difference after the new process was introduced. "There is still that rush at the gate," he says.
"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, each designated by color.
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 (which is for passengers who purchased nonrefundable fares and can’t pick seats in advance).
Some airlines are using biometric identification to speed up their boarding. Customers who choose to try the technology don’t need a boarding pass; each person’s image is captured at the boarding gate and passengers board once their identity is confirmed.
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 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 wide-body aircraft, according to the airline. Kathryn Steele, a spokesperson 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 Logan International Airport in Boston and has since expanded it to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida.
Some international carriers also are using biometric identification to board flights departing from the United States, including on British Airways for customers traveling to Britain from Orlando, Los Angeles, or JFK. The airline says 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 spokesperson for the airline, on BA’s two flights a day from Orlando to London Gatwick, up to 4,000 customers are boarded using biometrics every week.
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 the technology has helped cut the boarding time for more than 430 passengers from 40 minutes to 30 minutes.
While new procedures 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 he doubts they save time for fliers and airlines. "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?"