United Unveils a New Boarding Procedure That It Claims Will Speed Up the Process

Where you’re sitting in a given row will dictate when you board. Here’s what to know about United Airlines’ new boarding groups.

Rows of empty economy seats with blue headrests on a United Airlines airplane

Those sitting on the aisle, no need to crowd the gate; it’s going to be awhile.

Courtesy of United Airlines

United Airlines is reintroducing a boarding procedure for economy passengers that it had previously implemented several years ago, and if all goes according to plan, it should speed up an often-loathed process. According to an internal memo reviewed by AFAR, starting later this month, United will begin to designate most economy boarding groups by a passenger’s precise seat location. That is, those at window seats get on first, followed by middle seat sitters, and then those on the aisle.

This process—dubbed the WilMA boarding method for window, middle, and then aisle (don’t ask us where the “il” came from)—was already used by United until 2017. However, it was scrapped as the airline established basic economy, a fare class in which passengers are automatically assigned a seat. Since then, boarding times have increased. In fact, the Chicago-based carrier says that the average amount of time to board is up by two minutes since 2019.

United isn’t alone in wanting to decrease airplane turnaround time. In economic terms, those extra seconds are wasted revenue that could be used for actual flying. And while it’s not quite the Steffens method (whereby fliers board back-to-front, window-to-aisle, and by every other row to stagger the flow), the updated procedure should alleviate some of the bottlenecks that passengers encounter. The airline says recent tests at five airports were successful in shorter boarding.

Currently, United has five separate boarding groups; on October 26, the airline will introduce a sixth. The first three groups—which include elites, premium cabin passengers, select credit cardholders, and others with preboarding privileges (such as family with children under two and active duty military)—won’t change. Those travelers retain their priority status. In addition, families and multiple parties booked on the same economy reservation will remain together. The highest applicable boarding group within the reservation will apply.

United’s new boarding groups

  • 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 WilMA is one way to corral passengers onto a plane, past scientific studies have shown that it’s not actually the fastest way. The Steffens method, mentioned above, in which you board back-to-front and window-to-aisle, staggering boarding by every other row, has been proven to be among the fastest. And another expeditious process is a variation of the Steffens method, in which passengers board according to how much baggage they’re carrying.

However, most airlines—including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines—still use some variation of “block boarding,” a method where economy passengers are assigned a boarding block, zone, or group according to general location, but not based on a specific seat or row. Southwest is the odd one out with randomized seating—passengers get a group at check-in but beyond that, they still get to choose any open seat. While it’s controversial, in 2014, Mythbusters deemed this to be the fastest boarding method.

Boarding a plane may very well be one of the more detested parts of the travel experience. There’s the hovering at the gate, the queueing on the jet bridge, and of course, the parading down a congested aisle, carry-on bags in hand. However, United hopes resurfacing WilMA will speed things up—and perhaps more airlines will consider rejiggering their process, too.

Chris Dong is a freelance travel writer and editor with a focus on timely travel trends, points and miles, hot new hotels, and all things that go (he’s a proud aviation geek and transit nerd).
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More from AFAR