Starting in January, there will be eight Delta boarding categories, versus the current six.

Both airlines are changing how passengers board their flights with the goal of making frequent flyer program members happier, while also reducing crowding at the gates. But will it work?

This fall, United Airlines reduced the number of its boarding lanes from five to two, and now Delta has created additional boarding categories, both with the hopes that the new systems will translate into an improved experience for their frequent flyers and fewer people clogging up the boarding area.

“Airlines are having to strike a balance between what is potentially the most efficient way to board an airplane and a way that recognizes the high-value, high-paying passengers that are paying extra,” said Martin Rottler, lecturer for the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies.

So, how are they doing that? Let’s start with United. As any United flyer may recall, prior to September, United gates featured five lanes that corresponded to the five groups that appeared on passengers’ boarding passes. What this meant was that essentially almost the entire plane was lining up simultaneously, in a series of lanes that would often get jammed given the limited space at the gates.

Now, there are still five boarding groups, but groups three through five can remain seated (or roam the terminal a bit longer) and wait until their group is called and is displayed on the gate monitor that identifies which lane they should head to. Additionally, United’s MileagePlus Premier 1K members, who previously boarded in group one, can now pre-board, and United’s MileagePlus Premier Gold members have moved up in the boarding process from group two to group one. (As part of the changes, the military pre-boarding group has also been expanded from uniformed military members to now include all active duty military members.)

To ensure that passengers in groups three through five actually do wait until it’s time to board and don’t go ahead and crowd the gate anyway, Rottler said it’s going to take additional instruction and encouragement from the gate agents.

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“Ultimately, it’s going to come down to the airline needing to empower their individual employees to maintain the boarding process, make sure that it’s communicated clearly in the boarding area, as well as enforcing the zones, and enforcing the boarding priority on a flight-by-flight basis,” he noted.

Improved signage in the boarding areas, which United has already rolled out, clearly displaying which group is boarding when, will help as well, Rottler said. And technology could eventually make the process smoother, too. For instance, United app users now receive an alert when the boarding process has begun so that they know when to make their way to the gate, and the carrier is also planning on eventually alerting passengers about boarding times via text. The idea is to encourage travelers to hang out in the terminal longer rather than swarm the gate.

Delta’s new process puts emphasis on loyalty

The boarding process is about to change for Delta customers, too—with an even stronger emphasis on making sure the carrier’s most loyal customers feel extra special.

“The Delta changes that have come across make the boarding process for their earlier boarders more premium,” said Rottler. “They’re trying to make it stand out a little bit more as potentially a value-add for them.” 

The changes, which go into effect on January 23, will result in a shift from the existing six boarding categories to eight new ones. We would try to explain them all, but they are probably best explained through the handy chart below, provided by Delta.

Delta is doing away with its “zones” and adding all-new boarding categories.

As you can see, the expanded categories have fancy color coding and will be reflected in the booking process, on boarding passes, on the Delta app, and on screens and signage at the gate.

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Similar to United, Delta stated that the aim of the new procedure is to also encourage fewer customers to all line up in the gate area at the same time. While they may result in less congregating, according to Rottler, the new systems ultimately aren’t really designed to make boarding go any more quickly or efficiently. So, if you were hoping this will all mean speedier boarding, consider your expectations officially managed.

Said Rottler, “The pendulum has swung a little bit more towards the recognition of the premium passengers, and a little bit less towards the efficiency of the actual boarding process.”

Scaling back on support animals

Starting this month, young puppies will no longer be allowed on Delta flights.

Another change to Delta’s boarding process? Starting December 18, service and support animals under four months of age will not be allowed on any Delta flight. And starting February 1, 2019, emotional support animals will not be accepted on any Delta flights longer than eight hours, regardless of when the flight was booked.

The carrier explained that its new policy of not allowing younger service and support animals onboard is due to rabies vaccination requirements (dogs and cats are typically required to get rabies vaccinations at three or four months of age, in accordance with state regulations).

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