After 12,000 test runs, United takes on gate overcrowding with new boarding process

Key Points
  • United is encouraging travelers to wait until their boarding group is called.
  • Passengers will line up in two lines instead of five.
  • The airline is trying to reduce crowding at airports.
United overhauls its boarding process

Fuller flights are a boon to airlines but overcrowding at gates has become an unwelcome side effect.

United Airlines says its customers have complained about clusters of travelers around its gates. Travelers spilled into corridors and arriving passengers who just stepped off a flight were met with hordes of departing travelers.

"It's too congested," said Maria Walter, United Airlines' managing director of global operations strategy. "It created a lot of angst from our customers."

The airline on Tuesday debuted a new boarding process in an effort to combat this passenger pain point, and make sure flights depart on time as more travelers than ever opt to fly.

United reduced the boarding lines to two from five, and is urging travelers to wait until their boarding group — numbered 1 through 5 — is called. United carried close to 155 million passengers in the 12 months ended in August, up 6.1 percent from the year-earlier period, the company said last week.

The airline now sends out notifications to passengers on their mobile devices to let them now boarding has begun once the first boarding pass is scanned, so that travelers don't have to hover around the gate.

Travelers would sometimes queue up an hour before a flight, Walter said, which would attract even more passengers to the line. "It's like a magnet," she said.

United's two-line system brings it more in line with those of American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Southwest Airlines does not assign seats ahead of time but sorts passengers into groups based on when they've checked in or by their loyalty status level.

United tested different boarding processes on 12,000 flights around the world over the past year, as it reviewed customer feedback. The airline also tweaked some of the boarding group members, adding its top-tier travelers to the preboarding group along with active military and passengers with disabilities. Premier Gold members will be bumped up to group 1, because group 2, which includes co-branded United credit card holders, "has gotten a little bit large," said Walter.

Even as travelers jostle for precious overhead bin space, some passengers like the new method.

Before her 9:40 a.m. flight from United's hub at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to Portland, Oregon, Cathy York was seated, waiting for boarding group 3 to be called, instead of queuing.

"We're all going in the same direction," she said.

Airline seats and passengers get the squeeze