Major airline announces dramatic change to how people board planes

United Airlines is changing its boarding policy as a part of a radical shake-up that will impact hundreds of thousands of travellers.

The airline hopes to slash boarding times by switching up who can board the plane first.

From October 26, basic economy ticket holders and window seat passengers will board first, then those in middle seats, followed by people in aisle seats.

The change is estimated to cut boarding time by up to two minutes, United told NPR Thursday.

The process for pre-boarding groups, such as unaccompanied minors, people with disabilities, families with small children and active-duty military members, won’t change.

Boarding groups one through three (group three typically includes those with window seats and exit row seats) will also be unaffected by the shake-up.

But group four will now be reserved for passengers with middle seats and group five will be exclusively for those with aisle seats.

The policy change applies to US domestic flights and flights from the US to the Caribbean, Canada and some Central and South American cities.

United is adding a sixth boarding group for domestic flights and flights to the Caribbean and Central America for basic economy customers who don’t have a group number on their boarding pass.

United said the revision is in response to changing boarding times, which have ballooned by up to two minutes since 2019.

Tinkering with the boarding process has increased since airlines began charging fees for checked bags more than a decade ago.

Those fees encourage passengers to bring carry-on bags, which generally are still free except at low-cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier.

The push to board faster is also complicated by the airlines’ desire to sell early boarding or give it to elite members of their frequent-flier programs.

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Only after those people are seated — generally near the front of the plane — can everyone else board, passing the priority customers on the way to their seats in the back of the cabin.

Two minutes doesn’t make much difference on a transatlantic flight, but on heavily trafficked shorter routes — think about the Northeast, or between the Hawaiian islands — delays tend to cascade, pushing late-day flights farther and farther behind schedule.

If a few passengers dawdle while stowing their bag and finding their seat, it can make the difference between a flight being on time or late in the government’s official statistics.

The last passengers to board face the risk that there won’t be room for their carry-on bag in the overhead bins. That leads passengers in late boarding groups to crowd the gate area so they can jump in line ahead of others. Gate agents and seasoned travelers call the line jumpers “gate lice”.

United tested the new policy, known as WILMA, at five airports and found that it was faster.

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