Just a friendly reminder for everyone: American Airlines is changing their boarding procedures effective March 1.

While many (in my opinion) rushed to criticize the move, I think it makes sense for quite a few reasons.

AA 737

Airliners are more full now than any other time in history.  This should mean nothing but great things for airlines but it introduces interesting problems for things like boarding times:

  • Airlines now charge to check a bag, thus providing a financial incentive to bring a carry-on with you
  • As airline-branded credit cards have become part of the zeitgeist, more and more people are promised “priority” boarding
  • Many major airlines have 4 or more named status levels (American has 5, for example)
  • Space in the airport terminal is at a premium
  • Airlines now have to report any delays to the Department of Transportation, so airline management puts ground staff under immense pressure to get planes out on time (American calls this their “D0” initiative)

Put all that together and you end up with a majority of passengers on an average flight thinking they have priority access, gate agents who are hounded to get the plane boarded on time, and a full plane worth of passengers who do not want to check a bag.

Why American’s previous boarding process was broken

American’s previous boarding process called status-holding passengers by status level and then used groups for remaining passengers.  But here was the problem: Group 1 was usually the 4th or 5th group called to board.  An even bigger problem was that Citi promised “Group 1 boarding” on their credit card advertising.  Is it any wonder that so many people had no idea what that meant?

If I didn’t know any better (remember that over 80% of American’s customers fly American only once per year) I would think that “Group 1 boarding” meant that I could board with the first boarding group announced, which is frequently what happens.  This clogs the boarding lanes, annoys everyone, frazzles the gate agents, and doesn’t lead to a great experience for anyone.

Why I think American’s new boarding process could work

I’ll put it simply: even though they have 9 groups, they will only call group numbers.  Even though I’m sure some people will be offended they don’t get to hear Executive Platinum called and walk to the gate, the envy of their fellow passengers powering their narcissism, the new way just makes sense.

Group 1 will now be the first group called, instead of the fifth.  Citi sent emails over the weekend to cardholders letting them know their card now gets them Group 5 boarding privileges, which doesn’t sound as nice but it’s a heck of a lot more accurate.  Now every passenger will know exactly when they are boarding, which should hopefully help with the gate crowding issue.

Ultimately it will be up to the gate agents to enforce the proper boarding order but I think this makes it simpler for them as well.  There was too much ambiguity under the old system, under the new system there’s really not a reason for passengers in Group 7 to attempt to board any earlier, since there’s a big fat Group 7 written on their boarding pass.

I’m pretty tough on American from time to time but I think they got this one right.  It’s as important to highlight when airlines do something for the better.


What do you think of the new boarding process?  Do you think it will work?  Tell me in the comments below!




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