US Airways Ditches Scientific Boarding for the Cattle Call

Airport Experience, US Airways

In last week’s internal company newsletter, US Airways noted that it was switching up its boarding US Airways New Boarding Systemprocess. They’ve gone back to basics. Instead of trying to figure out the best way to board from a time-saving perspective, they’re just gonna let people fight it out.

The new plan is similar to what Northwest does, though I’m not sure if that’s changed under the Delta regime. In short, important people board first, and then everyone else gets to board together in the back. They’ve actually made it much more complicated than that. Here’s the new hierarchy:

  • Slow Pokes (Pre-boarding) – Those who need help boarding (disabled or old) or those with kids under 5

  • Really Important – Premium cabin passengers and top tier elite members (excludes Silver)

  • Sort of Important – Silver elite members, US Airways credit card holders, and people who paid for premium coach seats (exit row, etc)

  • Not Important but Cheaper to Process – those who check-in online

  • Not Important and More Expensive to Process – everyone else

Seems like a lot of groups to me. The only major thing here that we haven’t seen before is that those who check-in online get to board ahead of those who don’t. It’s a nice little incentive that I would think might help push people to go online. That’s the goal, of course, since it’s cheaper for the airline.

But what’s significant here is that they’ve completely abandoned any sort of science in trying to board people in the quickest way. The old system was called the “Reverse Pyramid” which, besides being a move you’d probably like to see a cheerleader make, also, according to research performed by ASU, was the fastest way to board. Maybe US Airways has decided that it feels the same way about ASU as the Daily Show does.

More likely, however, is that they’d carved out so many exceptions that it didn’t actually help much anymore. See the reverse pyramid plan starts with windows in the back, then windows in the middle and middles in the back, and then windows up front, middles in the middle, and aisles in the back, etc.

In the last few years, so many exceptions popped up that allowed early boarding that the benefits of using the reverse pyramid have probably disappeared. So now they’ll just scrap the system and let the peons fight it out.

[Original Image from Mauricio Santana (Tux) via Flickr]

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24 comments on “US Airways Ditches Scientific Boarding for the Cattle Call

  1. Not convinced this is an entirely good idea. If an airline does not assign seats at checkin, the cattle call approach works well – it heavily incentivises people to choose a seat quickly.

    If however seats *are* assigned at checkin, and passengers know there will be a cattle call at boarding, passengers are thus incentivised to wait until the mob has sorted itself out… and only *then* board. While this may get the bulk of passengers in their seats a little faster, those stragglers who deliberately wait til the end of baording before going down onto an aircraft are the ones who can delay the plane’s departure from the gate.

    If you don’t assign seats at checkin, go for the cattle call approach. If you do assign seats at checkin, the boarding process needs to be *perceived* as civilised rather than people thinking they will need to use their elbows to fight their way through the mob.

  2. I’ve never flown US Airways. Did they really use the reverse pyramid rather than the more common boarding by rows? I see two problems with the reverse pyramid:

    1. Parties of 2 or 3 sitting next to each other — were they forced to board separately?

    2. Aisles always board last in their row — this is indeed efficient, but it means that aisle seats as a rule get much less access to overhead bin space. This should make aisle seats less desirable than they would be otherwise.

    David — if you need overhead bin space, you’d better try to board early; those who don’t need bin space can board really fast. I used to do this when I traveled with virtually no carry-on — spend an hour at the bar in the old Tower Air terminal at JFK, then whiz past a mostly seated 747 into my middle seat in row 50-something. Very quick and simple.

  3. Cranky –

    By cattle call do you mean they’ve completely eliminated boarding passes and assigned seats or is it just a free-for-all as far as boarding by row or zone number?

  4. To me boarding never seems quick no matter what the airline did. I didn’t like when United used front and back doors to board. At SFO if you were in the back of the plane you had to use an exit door and walk down stairs to the tarmac and walk this covered plastic tunnel to the rear of the place and then climb stairs to board. Those in the front of the plane used the jetway. That was so stupid.

    Granted it used to be slower when non ticketed people could go past security. Remember the old days when one person went on a trip 20 family members went to the airport with them. They would stay talking with the visitors until the last minute and all those last last minute chatter boxes would finally board and were always slow about it. At least now they get on the plane since there is no one to sit talking to.

    Maybe they should seat people like big amusement parks use to park cars. Drive in and the park employees would direct you to the parking spot. Filling up the first rows first and one car next to the other. The fastest way to board with be those on first move to the back and start filling up the seats window-middle-aisle each side from back row to front. Allow a 10-15 minute board time depending on aircraft size and if you are not on the plane when the time is up, you don’t go. That would keep people moving fast…

  5. How long before this officially or unofficially evolves into a 3 step process: 1) pre-board, 2) premium cabin, FF’s w/status 3) everybody else.

    I assume that your zone will be printed on your boarding pass. But how will they know if you have a Dividend Miles credit card? Those programs are not run by US Air, and perhaps you purchased the ticket with another card? And if you check in online, but pick up your boarding pass at the airport, do you get bumped into Zone 4?

    Luckily for US, since they will still call out boarding by zones, this rules will be opaque enough to less frequent fliers that people won’t know why they are in a lower zone than perhaps they should be.

    Another quick point, doesn’t this system and up being almost the same boarding order as the last one, but in reverse order? The more frequent and seasoned fliers will typically be in the front of the airplane. So this won’t really be as efficient as the Northwest system which relies on random placement, since there will be some sort of pattern.

  6. Eh, I think this is a poor call on USAirways’s part.. I think they should’ve done a better job of managing the exceptions. If someone is an Elite their zone should be moved.

    With the bar code scanned boarding passes they should be able to gather enough data about consumer behavior to develop a system to dynamically assign people to zones the night before the plane flies to optimize boarding starting with the ideal pyramid then figuring out how to work through the exceptions.

    Ron – I believe the windows in the back was zone 5, and the windows in the middle, middles in the back was zone 4 etc. If a party had boarding passes with multiple different zones they were encouraged to board with whoever was in the highest zone — this way that whole row would be filled up..

  7. Cranky,

    How can you say that this is the first time we’ve seen folks who check in online get to board first? We all know about the free for all that happens online once the 24 hour window opens on Southwest. So, in effect, the folks that check in early online do get preferential boarding.

  8. Optimist – No, they aren’t eliminating assigned seats – they just aren’t boarding by seat location anymore.

    Shane – Good questions. I’m sure if you pay with the US credit card, they can mark it somehow. Otherwise, they’ll probably make a boarding call for credit card holders, and you can just show your card to get on early. At least, that’s how I’d do it. Also, I’m not sure how they’ll handle it if you check-in at home and then reprint at the airport. I bet that will remain zone 3.

    About Northwest’s system, they still allowed preboarding for all the elites, so this isn’t probably going to be that much different. I’m guessing US checked this out already and figured that it won’t appreciably hurt boarding times.

    It’s now my understanding that Delta and Northwest will transition to a new boarding process next week with First Class and coach bulkheads boarding first, then elite members, then the last third of the plane, and then the rest. Interesting that they no longer will have true preboarding – though they’ll make exceptions if necessary.

    BLR – But you could have gone to the airport 24 hours early and checked in there as well. That wasn’t specifically limited to checking in online, though in effect it was.

  9. Hey Cranky,

    You’re a nice young vigorous fellow who probably moves at a fast clip through the airport. In your thank-you letter for their wedding gifts, ask your grandmother, or your mother, their age group label preference. I suspect it won’t be “the old.”


  10. Jim S – I could have called the group “ancient” – would that be better? Ok, now I’m just being snarky. It’s just a game of figuring out which term is politically correct this week. I have no doubt that 99% of the posts I write have something that could be offensive to someone in ways that I probably never imagined. I’ll just keep using the words that I think get my point across well. If you’re not disabled but you still need extra time to get onboard, then I think “old” is a pretty good description.

  11. I’m with CF.. “old” is an appropriate descriptor. There are some words that are patently offensive in and of themselves (e.g. the “n” word)

    You need to read a writer’s intent, not their explicit words. In this case Cranky’s intent, wasn’t to be cranky and snarky, just descriptive of those who take a little longer than others to get on the plane.

  12. Shane and CF,

    The question of whether or not a passenger has a US Airways branded credit card is easily integrated into their frequent flyer profile. As long as the ACS (check-in system) can query the FQTV database at time of check-in, it can easily determine what zone to assign the passenger. The trick to this being that someone would need to be using their DividendMiles FF number, and not a parter FF number.

    I do agree that the reason behind boarding delays are not the process or the manner in which groups are determined when used but the fact these process are bypasses by making exceptions. There’s no point in having a scientifically designed process that optimizes boarding when multiple groups of people (often times encompassing 1/3 or even 1/2 of a flight) can be exemted from the process and allowed to board at any time. Boarding either by rows or reverse pyramid from the back forward will still cause long lines backing up into jetways so long as someone sitting in row 3 can board at any time.

  13. I was recently on a NW flight (I’m Gold Medallion on DL), and I was absolutly appaled at the boarding process.

    1) I spend good money to be allowed to pre-board
    2) You had old blue-hairs in row 13 who were holding up a long line of people while they were getting seated.

    I strongly believe in F, Elite, and Y from back to front. Otherwise it’s just chaos.

  14. Wait, I should add one addendum. NW did not prevent non-elite from boarding with elite. If you walked to the gate, they scanned you boarding pass and still let you on. I know this because I saw the boarding card of the person in front of me, it simply indicated that they were a skymiles member as opposed to listing their elite status.

  15. I wasn’t impressed with Delworst’s approach last time I flew @ a month ago. The problem with the free for all is that the airlines for all practical purposes do not enforce their carry on policies. I don’t want to be stuck with backpack under the seat in front of me. I want that space to help keep my legs happy. If you don’t get up and stand in line in anticipation of the boarding announcement you’re probably going to have that happen especially with all those people bringing on a big ass carry on alogn with a “purse” that makes my backpack look like a wallet.

    With it the flying experience becomes stand in a big ass line to drop off the checked in luggage because they still can’t figure out how to let me just drop it off since I’ve already checked that bag in and paid for it 20 hours ago. Then I get to do a lil walking and stand in another big ass line in security. This time I get to top it off with taking off half the clothing I have along with dis assemble my back pack so security doesn’t get their undies a bunch cuz I didn’t take out the camera, flip, mp3 players, all the micro SDs, SDs, MemorySticks, adapaters for those along with mice, cables for devices, etc, etc just cuz every time I don’t they get upset… and 1/2 the time I do they tell me I didn’t need to. I just kindly tell them that at MKE, MSP, DEN, SLC, and others security’s had me do it.

    Anyway after that circus I usually have a chance to grab a coffee and hunt down a plug in for the laptop and sit down for 1/2 hr to an hour. Then with Delworst it’s time to stand in line in anticipation of the boarding line being formed… so a de facto boarding line. Not exactly the best of experiences. At least not until you try traveling by Greyhound. :)

    Greg –> BTW, from my experience I usally try to pre-board. If I get away with it, I don’t feel too bad. LIke I elluded to, it wouldn’t matter so much but with others getting away with the carry-on crap they do, it helps.

  16. I fly out of Charlotte, so am largely stuck with USAir… Are they not the only airline that segregates out Silver for lesser treatment? And they appear to be the only airline that offers no separate lane for Elites to board if they miss the pre-board. The leader in extra fees, the leader in poor service.

  17. Cheri – I think United actually does separate out lower elites from upper elites in the boarding process as well.

  18. Allen — I think you’re right about carry-ons being the biggest factor in boarding speed. I remember flying in the UK in late 2006, when they instantiated the super-strict liquid and carry-on bans, and boarding was a breeze — so much that there were even calls to make the restrictions permanent. But overall I prefer the inconvenience of waiting behind people with big carry-ons over the inconvenience of having to check my luggage.

  19. The thing is, I have never seen US enforce their boarding zones before. As a Star Gold, I would always be ready to board in the first zone, only to have a crowd of Kettles in Zones 24 through 76 cut in line ahead of me and be let on board by the hapless gate agent. So US might as well abolish the fiction of zones if they aren’t going to enforce them anyway.

  20. Yup. Used to be Silver on USAir when I lived in Raleigh. We did not board with our Gold and above brethren. I’m Silver with Delta now and it’s all at the same time. That just seems more efficient to me anyway. Why should the gate agent have to announce 3 different groups before starting general boarding? This in NO way is an endorsement of Delta. I reached Medallion status by segments instead of miles from a few international flights like I did with USAir. That much contact with any airline doesn’t leave the best taste. @ Cheri:

  21. The US Airways “zone boarding” is the most ridiculous way to board people. Since I have almost no other choice, I have to fly US Airways almost twice a months. I refuse to pay extra for a seat of my choice or get their credit card or become their “elite” passenger all of which would have put me in boarding zone 2. I am not buying 1st class tickets either which cut me off of boarding zone 1. I prefer not in the back of the airplane which cut me off boarding zone 4. When I called their customer service they told me that basically no matter what I do I would most likely always be in boarding zone 5 since I prefer to sit towards the front of the airplane or in the middle. I do check in online, but it DOES NOT take me out of boarding zone 5 EVER!! The most horrific (but I guess US Airways could care less about this issue since it causes an inconvenience for the passengers, not for the airline) the window seats in the rows towards the airplane of in the middle of it are designated as boarding zone 5. If by any chance you have let’s say seat 13A and your neighbors at 13B and 13C came into an airplane before you and already set, they would have to stand up, get out of their sits in order to let you take your seat. Actually, US Airways enjoys such torture as after going through this horrific seating experience you most likely open your wallet and BUY a seat paying additional money for it. Not that you would get a better seat, but you would get an earlier boarding zone! It’s all about making money!

  22. KATIE!!! Thank you for solving the mystery for me!!! I’m traveling in a few hours to LA and was just here bitching to a friend about my check in zone.. I always get a window seat and I’m always somewhere in the middle 12, 13,14… No matter when I check in, I’m ALWAYS in Zone 5. I do carry on always but because I’m Zone 5, I always run the risk of having to bag check at the gate by the time 1-4 get on!!! AND I HAVE THEIR DAMN CARD..but not the premier..RIDICULOUS!!!

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