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United Airlines Introduces New Seat-Specific Boarding Process to Expedite Passenger Boarding

United Airlines Introduces New Seat-Specific Boarding Process to Expedite Passenger Boarding

United Airlines is introducing a revamped boarding procedure for its economy passengers, aiming to expedite the often-frustrating boarding process. Instead of the previous system, which was based on different boarding groups, the new approach will designate boarding order based on the passenger's specific seat location. Starting later this month, United will initiate this seat-specific boarding process, allowing passengers in window seats to board first, followed by those in middle seats and finally those in aisle seats.

This method, dubbed the "WilMA" boarding procedure (an acronym for Window, Middle, Aisle), was utilized by United until 2017 but was abandoned when they introduced basic economy fares, where seats were automatically assigned. Since then, boarding times have increased, with United noting a two-minute increase in boarding time since 2019.

United's move to enhance boarding efficiency aligns with a broader industry goal to decrease aircraft turnaround times, as each additional second spent on boarding represents lost revenue that could be utilized for actual flight operations. Although it doesn't employ the Steffens method, which boards passengers back-to-front, window-to-aisle, and staggered by every other row, the updated procedure is expected to alleviate some of the congestion passengers experience. The airline reported successful results from recent tests conducted at five airports that showed improved boarding times.

United currently has five boarding groups, and they will introduce a sixth on October 26. The first three groups, consisting of elites, premium cabin passengers, select credit cardholders, and passengers with preboarding privileges, will remain unchanged. Families and groups traveling together within the same economy reservation will continue to board together, adhering to the highest applicable boarding group within their reservation.

The new boarding groups for United are as follows:

  • Preboarding: Customers with disabilities and unaccompanied minors, active duty military, Global Services members, families with children under two, and Premier 1K members.
  • Group 1: United Polaris business, United first, United business, Premier Platinum, Premier Gold, and Star Alliance Gold.
  • Group 2: Premier Silver, Star Alliance Silver, select credit card holders, and paid Premier Access.
  • Group 3: Window seats, exit row seats, and nonrevenue passengers.
  • Group 4: Middle seats.
  • Group 5: Aisle seats.
  • Group 6: Basic economy passengers.

While the WilMA method is one approach to streamline boarding, past studies have shown that the Steffens method, where passengers board back-to-front and window-to-aisle, staggered by every other row, is among the fastest. Another efficient approach is a variation of the Steffens method, which organizes passengers based on the amount of baggage they're carrying.

Nonetheless, many airlines, including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, still employ some form of "block boarding," where economy passengers are assigned to boarding blocks, zones, or groups based on general location rather than specific seats or rows. Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, stands out with randomized seating, granting passengers a group at check-in, but allowing them to choose any available seat. In 2014, Mythbusters even deemed this method the fastest for boarding.

Boarding a plane remains one of the least favored aspects of air travel, with passengers often enduring the wait at the gate, the queue on the jet bridge, and the crowded aisle procession while carrying their carry-on bags. United's reintroduction of the WilMA method is an attempt to expedite this process, and it may inspire other airlines to consider similar improvements in their boarding procedures.