A Stupid Attack on United Airlines’ Boarding Process

An article in The Street attacks United Airlines by comparing it to Southwest Airlines and arguing that its boarding process is punitive and intended to shame customers. I find this argument completely unconvincing.

Is the United Airlines boarding process “unpleasant” and an “intentionally terrible situation?”

The premise of the story is that Southwest Airlines’ boarding process is orderly, where everyone is assigned a group letter (AC) and number (1-60) that very clearly indicates when you can board, and United is punitive. Specifically, United boards in groups and when groups 3-5 are called, it becomes a scramble for everyone to board as quickly as possible to ensure limited space in the overhead bin.

Once you hit the final groups, however, things change. The overhead storage space runs out towards the end of the third group, making it important for people wanting to carry a bag on board earlier in this group. This is where the lack of numbers or any form of organization creates a mess.

People in the third group, and later the fourth and fifth are never asked to line up. Groups are sometimes called and at other times they know they are supposed to board because a digital sign changes.

It creates chaos like Black Friday when door-to-door deals were a thing. It’s kind of a dangerous mess and it’s something United Airlines did very intentionally.

The chaos seems to me quite exaggerated. Indeed, if you are in groups 3 to 5, you have to wait for your group number to be called, but it is clearly announced both by the door agent and on the overhead monitors. Does it cause a rush to board? Yes. But Walmart Black Friday style? No, not even close.

And the author misses an essential point:

The basic economy system is designed so that people who pay less for their tickets feel like they are in a lower class than those who pay more. It would be nice if it was explicit. The airline could say that people in the fourth and fifth boarding groups cannot bring a bag that must go in an upper bin, but that would defeat the unstated purpose of the airline…

The airline wants the base experience to be bad, so you’re more willing to pay next time. He could offer low fares with fewer benefits with dignity, but he chose not to in order to maximize future revenue.

Indeed, United is trying to penalize those who book Basic Economy tickets. But United differs from American Airlines and Delta Air Lines by specifying that passengers traveling in Basic Economy cannot take large carry-on bags on board.

Really if there’s a “bait and switch” it’s American and Delta that’s to blame because they make it look like you can bring your own bag if you’re traveling in basic economy, but in reality the Overhead compartment space is often gone by the time you board. United at least lets you know that if you buy a base ticket, you can’t take a bag on board. There are no surprises. The author is wrong: the airline warns you in advance.

Another point: the United Next initiative will mean that all narrow-body planes will have new overhead compartments in which bags can be stored vertically and (presumably) all bags will fit. Once this happens, there will be no need to rush on board.


I don’t know why the author chose to compare United to Southwest when United is very clear that Basic Economy passengers cannot bring carry-on baggage on board. Is United’s onboarding process ideal? No. But the idea that “United Airlines wants people in the first two boarding groups to have a pleasant and orderly experience” seems rather absurd.

“If you’re flying United on a basic economy fare without buying extras, recognize that you’re Jack, not Rose, on the Titanic. It’s a class system and while it’s legal, it’s not. pleasant.

Last time I checked, United doesn’t put basic economy class passengers on the wing…

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