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OMG! Elite United Passengers Board With Masses

Fliers line up to board a flight.
Bertrand Guay | AFP| GettyImages
Fliers line up to board a flight.

United Airlines implemented the first leg of a new boarding procedure Thursday to alleviate crowding at airport gate rooms. But many frequent-fliers are balking at the change because they're being forced to — horror of horrors! — board together with some non-elite masses.

United announced the new boarding process Monday on the popular frequent-flier forum Flyertalk.com. And reaction has been swift and critical.

Frequent-Flier Reaction

Under the previous seven-tiered boarding group system, passengers who had one of United's credit cards boarded after elite frequent-fliers. But now they're grouped with travelers who fly up to 75,000 miles annually on United. And this change is maddening United's elite travelers. (Read more: How Flying, Just for the Miles, Can Pay Off)

"Boy am I glad I made Plat (Platinum) this year ... If I were still a Gold and had to fight in the same group with the Explorer (credit) card holders, I'd be furious," said one forum member within minutes of the announcement.

"Huge downgrade. I see little point of trying for gold or silver for 2013 at this point," said another member.

Another criticism is that international first-class passengers aren't given preferential treatment and instead board with a large swath of other fliers in Group 1.

"If I were a full (fare first-class) international passenger and was made to wait in line behind 20-50 others, that would be the last (United) would see of me," said another Flyertalk member.

Boarding Process Changes

The new boarding group priority is as follows:

  • Pre-boarding: Passengers with disabilities, then Global Services (United's invite-only passengers who spend tens of thousands annually on tickets) and uniformed military personnel.
  • Group 1: Global Services, Premier 1K, Premier Platinum and first- and business-class passengers.
  • Group 2: Premier Gold, Star Alliance Gold, Premier Silver, Star Alliance Silver and United's credit card holders.
  • Groups 3-5: General boarding.

The second phase, already implemented at a handful of gates at United's busiest airports, will be rolled out system wide beginning in March. It adds dedicated lanes for each group allowing passengers to line up in their respective groups ahead of boarding. (Read more: Delta Tests 'Do It Yourself' Turnstile Boarding)

"Over the next several months, we're going to be making several changes to address crowding and consistency and, frankly, to help you just understand where you should stand as you wait to board," said Shannon Kelly, United's director of customer insights, on the forum. "Over time, we'll also make physical changes to our gate areas, deploy better directional signage, and enact changes to the boarding process itself."

More than 920 people have posted feedback on the Flyertalk thread, the vast majority upset with the changes.

"The inclusion of (credit) cardholders in Group 2 won't have a significant impact on the number of customers boarding in that group because the number of non-Premier (credit) cardholders on any given flight, when there are any, is relatively small," said Rahsaan Johnson, United's director of public relations, in an email.

"As for international premium-cabin customers, they previously boarded with Premier 1Ks booked in Economy. Including Premier Platinums in this group is a change whose impact we'll continue to monitor," Johnson said. "Our objective is to find a process that makes boarding as efficient as possible, and we're not opposed to making changes and experimenting a bit until we settle on the process that works best for travelers and co-workers."

I'm flying United next week, including international first-class, so I'll be keen to see the new process in action. (Read more: Road Warrior Tested: United Airlines International Business Class)

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