Airlines have taken a lot of the fun out of flying, with added fees and cramped seats. Boarding can resemble a cattle call with travelers crowding near the aircraft gate to get on.
American Airlines, with a hub and more than 400 daily flights in Philadelphia, is redesignating its boarding process. Starting Wednesday, passengers will be separated into nine boarding groups.
Gate agents will no longer announce categories of elite frequent fliers and first- and business-class travelers, who previously boarded before Group 1. Now, they will be assigned to specific groups, 1 to 4, and boarded first.
Regular boarding, formerly known as Group 1, will now begin, next, with Group 5. Groups 6, 7, and 8 will be the infrequent travelers who don't have one of the airline's branded credit cards.
But the reality was that Group 1 travelers never boarded first. Dozens of others with first-class and business cabin tickets, and frequent fliers with 25,000 to more than 100,000 annual flying miles, always boarded first.
Now, everyone will get a group number. Gate monitors will display which group is boarding at the time.
"We are not changing the boarding order, just the group names," said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American. "Customers would line up and say, 'I'm going to be the first to board. I'm in Group 1,' not realizing that there were additional groups who were going to board prior to them. This is just more transparent."
Travelers vie to board because of limited space in the overhead bins for carry-on bags. "It's the fight for the overhead bin space," said Brett Snyder, author of CrankyFlier.com, an airline-industry blog.
American contends the new boarding groups will simplify the process.
Snyder said it doesn't simplify anything. "It's just renumbering what they already do. Nothing is easier. It's just now you have a better idea of where you stand."
If airlines wanted to make boarding easier, they'd say, " 'Get on the plane. Let's go,' " he said. "The right way to do boarding, for sure, is to tell people to get on the plane randomly."
Instead, airlines cater to their frequent fliers, premium cabin customers, and airline credit-card holders. "They are trying to balance all these different groups, and they've created a nightmare of a boarding process in general."
The new boarding numbers coincide with the launch Wednesday of cheaper "basic economy" fares, which are $30 to $40 less expensive round-trip than a regular economy ticket, but have severe restrictions, including no carry-on bag in the overhead bin. Basic economy passengers will board in Group 9. American, Delta, and United are offering rock-bottom fares on some routes to compete with the discount-fare carriers Spirit and Frontier.
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, a consumer group for airline passengers, said the new boarding "will segregate basic economy passengers so that gate agents can be sure they do not have carry-on baggage and can be assured of being directed to the least desirable seats." The idea, he said, is to create a third class that is so uncomfortable or demeaning that passengers will pay extra fees for the right to have carry-on baggage.
"Without regulation, there is no limit to further lowering of service standards, shrinking of seats, padding, legroom, and bathroom size," Hudson said. FlyersRights.org has appealed the Federal Aviation Administration's refusal to regulate airplane seat size and passenger space. A hearing is scheduled for March 10 in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, he said.
Frequent flier Steve Lapin of Elkins Park, who now lives in Tampa, Fla., said he used to board in Group 1 because he has the American "aviator" MasterCard, which gave him Group 1 boarding and a free checked bag. Now, he said, he will be in Group 5. "The same number of people are going to board before me as did before. I don't think that has changed, and that is the most important thing."
Zach Honig, editor-in-chief at thePointsGuy.com, a blog and website for maximizing airline frequent-flier miles and credit-card points, said: "One of the biggest challenges gate agents face at the airport is getting passengers to respect an airline's prescribed boarding order. Now, with a total of nine printed boarding groups at American, passengers may have more motivation than ever to push their way to the front in an attempt to board early."
Snyder, of CrankyFlier, said, "My initial reaction when I saw this was that I liked it." Under the old system, even if a boarding pass said Group 1, "most of the plane was already boarded by the time they got to me because of all the elites," he said. "This just kind of sets the expectations better."