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2013: 330,818

A Look at How Different Airlines Board Their Planes

Boarding an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 at Burbank. Image by Colin Cook.

Boarding an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 at Burbank. Image by Colin Cook.

It used to be that most major airlines shared commonalities in the way they boarded passengers. However it seems that each airline has so their own boarding processes that it’s hard to keep up. Sure, the way an airline boards likely won’t sway a decision on which airline to fly, I wanted to put together a list of how some of the major airlines operate their boarding process.

As one would expect, the majority of airlines give priority boarding to their elite level fliers. Having personally achieved even a low level MVP with Alaska Airlines I can say that I would never want to go back to being just “one of the herd.” While I haven’t gone on a “mileage run”, there are many well documented stories of folks taking a quick trip just for the sake of achieving elite-level status.

With precious overhead space and many airlines now charging for checked luggage it’s become a race to get on board as early as possible. While some low cost carriers are now charging for carry-on bags, the major US airlines typically allow one carry-on bag (i.e. a roller bag or other bag for the overhead bin) and one personal item (laptop bag, purse, backpack, etc). Since many travelers are now bringing a large carry-on bag, boarding times have soared. An article in the New York Times suggested that boarding a plane with 140 people in the 1970’s took about 15 minutes which has more than doubled to 30-40 minutes.

Without further adieu, here is how the various airlines handle their boarding procedures (a small note: these are all the boarding requirements as found by AirlineReporter.com at the time of publishing. These change frequently, so please add any changes/ideas to the comments and listen to all gate announcements for proper boarding proceedures):

How does Air Tran board? – This airline’s boarding procedures will undoubtedly change as the integration into Southwest takes place over time. Southwest operates a 737 only fleet and is in the process of subleasing Air Tran’s Boeing 717 planes to Delta. Presently, Air Tran pre-boards unaccompanied minors, passengers traveling with an infant, and passengers needing special assistance prior to general boarding. Like many other airlines, Air Tran utilizes a zone boarding process.

How does Alaska Airlines board? – Being based in the Pacific Northwest, I fly Alaska more than any other airline. Their boarding process is pretty straightforward. They don’t mess around with zones or boarding groups and have a seemingly more streamlined approach. They begin with preboarding – those customers who are traveling with children or need some additional time to get down the jet way. After preboarding, they invite First Class, Alaska Airlines MVP and 75k elite level fliers. Next are passengers seated in row six of the main cabin (bulkhead row at the front of economy) and Alaska MVPs and partner elites. After that, they board from the rear of the plane starting with passengers seated in row 15 and higher. Finally they open to general boarding at that point. It’s a pretty well organized system and tends to work well.

STORY: Flying First Class on Alaska Airlines

Boarding an Allegiant MD-80 in Bellingham. Image from David Parker Brown / AirlineReporter.com.

Boarding an Allegiant MD-80 in Bellingham. Image from David Parker Brown / AirlineReporter.com.

How does Allegiant board? – Allegiant offers many different add-ons to their standard fare and does a nice job of providing ala carte service where you can add additional services to their basic fare. Among their options are Priority Boarding for $9.99 (allows you to board first), Premium Seat Selection $9.99 (an assigned seat near the front or exit row), Standard Seat Assignment $6.99 (assigned seat towards the back of the plane). You can certainly opt to fly without paying any of those additional fees, but be prepared to sit in a middle seat. Their boarding process allows people that paid for priority boarding to board first, followed by those who need a little extra time. Then passengers who paid for the standard seat assignment are allowed to board followed by those who do not have seat assignments but have young children. Lastly it goes to open seating and people get to fend for them self to find an open seat.

STORY: Flight review flying Allegiant Airlines

How does American Airlines board? – American is one of the airlines that actually disclose their boarding process on their website. Many airlines do not give a specific process but simply expect you to pay attention when you get to the airport. American employs a process similar to most of the other legacy carriers in that they give priority to elites and then general boarding. Their process consists of preboarding First Class, Uniformed Military, AAdvantage Executive Platinum, and oneworld Emerald. On aircraft with three class service, Business Class is boarded next. The next group consists of AAdvantage Platinum and oneworld Sapphire, followed by Priority AAccess and oneworld Ruby. From there, American is in the home stretch boarding groups 1-4. Of course this could all be changing with the airline merging with US Airways.

STORY: Taking American’s 737 Sky Interior Delivery Flight

How does Delta Air Lines board? – The world’s largest airline by passengers carried and fleet size has developed a good reputation among both business and leisure travelers. They utilize a zone boarding process similar to many of the other large airlines. They first offer preboarding to their Sky Miles Medallion elite level fliers (Diamond, Platinum, and Gold) and passengers traveling in the first class cabin. On international flights they then invite passengers traveling in BusinessElite, Sky Miles Medallion Silver frequent fliers, and partner elites to board. Delta then begins general boarding via a zone process beginning from the rear of the aircraft. Depending on the size of the plane and whether it is an international or domestic flight, Delta can have as many as nine different boarding groups.

How does Frontier Airlines board? – Denver’s hometown airline has been undergoing some big changes in recent years. Frontier uses a zone boarding style similar to many other carriers, beginning with preboarding for passengers with special needs, which include passengers who need assistance and unaccompanied minors. Similarly to Jet Blue’s Silent Boarding group, they do not announce a special boarding for this group. The one nice thing is that you don’t have to make a reservation in advance for the extra time, whereas you do on Jet Blue. Frontier then invites their Summit Members to board which is the top tier of their EarlyReturns frequent flier program. They then begin priority boarding and Zone 1 which includes Ascent members (second tier of EarlyReturns), as well as people traveling on a Classic Plus fare or seated in Stretch seating. Next, they invite families with small children and passengers requiring additional time or assistance to board. They also have a separate boarding group here for people who are not utilizing overhead bins (it pays to pack lightly). After that, they begin boarding with Zone 2, which are passengers in Select seating. Finally, they board Zone 3 which is pretty much anyone else. So while Frontier technically only has three zones, they really have seven different boarding groups.

STORY: Review flying Frontier Airlines to Denver and back

A JetBlue E-190 in Boston. Image from David Parker Brown / AirlineReporter.com.

A JetBlue E-190 in Boston. Image from David Parker Brown / AirlineReporter.com.

How does JetBlue board?– As is typically true with most things JetBlue, they try to keep their boarding process simple. They begin with pre-boarding which they call Silent Boarding. This is a service that must be requested in advance and is designed for people who have requested or appear to need additional time boarding. The interesting bit is that they do not make a gate announcement (hence the Silent Boarding name), so it is up to you to request this service and show up at the right time. After Silent Boarding they begin priority boarding for Mosaic and Even More Space customers. Mosaic is their elite level program which has many of the same benefits as competitors (priority security lane, preferred seating, 2 free checked bags, bonus points, and dedicated customer service line). Even More Space is an option that you can select when booking and just like it name suggests you get more space.

JetBlue then invites families with children under the age of 2 and other individuals who need additional time to board. It’s interesting that they have their Silent Boarding and then a separate pre-board for people who may need additional time. Finally, they board from the rear of the aircraft forward in five row increments. This begins with individuals in rows 20-25, then 15-25, 10-25, and lastly 5-25.

STORY: Flying JetBlue from the Bahamas to Boston in an E-190

How does Southwest Airlines board? – Southwest is unique since they do not actually assign seats. So it’s still important to get a good boarding group to ensure a good seat and overhead storage. Their overall process contains a boarding group (A, B, or C) and a number (1-60) and they have passengers queue up in the boarding area in a line according to the boarding group and number. Some have called this process a “cattle call,” but really it seems like less people end up standing around waiting to be called than with other methods.  Alternatively, you can buy a Business Select or EarlyBird Check-In to be among the first to board. For frequent fliers, it is a pretty simple boarding process, but it seems that people who do not fly often, easily get confused on how to board a Southwest plane.

STORY: Guide to getting a good seat on Southwest Airlines

How does Spirit Airlines board? – Spirit is the ultimate King of low cost travel and their boarding process and baggage policies reflect that. Like Allegiant, their base fares are always amongst the lowest but Spirit is betting you will purchase additional services. They not only have fees for seat selection but also other amenities such as checked baggage and soft drinks on board. Spirit employs a zone boarding process similar to many airlines with some differences. They allow unaccompanied minors and others requiring assistance first, followed by folks sitting in their Big Front Seats (first row or two depending on aircraft that are in a 2-2 layout and have better seat pitch), and then the remaining zones 2, 3, & 4. The one difference is that they board from the front to the back.

How does United Airlines board? – No sooner than I finished writing the original section on United, the airline made yet another change in their boarding process. This marks the fifth time in less than two years that the airline has changed their procedure. This is not surprising as mergers always result in some chaos, but it would seem smart for the airline to stick to one process for a while — hopefully this one will stick.

Under the new process, they begin with pre-boarding of customers with disabilities, Global Services, and uniformed military personnel. Following that, Group 1 is invited to board which included Global Services (for customers that did not pre-board), Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, and their premium cabins. Group 2 is essentially for all of the United and partner elite fliers including Premier Gold and Silver, Star Alliance Gold and Silver, MileagePlus Presidential Plus and Club cardholders, MileagePlus Explorer and Awards cardholders.

It’s interesting that United does not give greater priority to their Gold and Silver level fliers – someone who holds their credit card is given the same boarding priority. United has really been pushing their Explorer credit card so it’s no surprise they used priority boarding as a selling point. United then opens up for groups 3-5 for general boarding from the rear of the aircraft. Unlike other airlines, they no longer give priority boarding to families traveling with infants or young children. Those families must board when their group number is called.

How does US Airways board? – Much like other legacy carriers, US Airways uses a zone boarding process. They begin with preboarding of First Class / Envoy, Preferred members of their Dividend Miles program, and Star Alliance Gold members. After preboarding, zone 1 consists of the bulkhead row and exit row seats without under the seat storage. It’s interesting that they allow exit row seats without under the seat storage to board early. I realize that these folks have responsibilities since they are in the exit row, but does it really take them longer to board?

Zone 2 is made up of US Airways Premier World MasterCard holders, US Airways Visa Signature card holders, ChoiceSeats, and Exit row seats with under-the-seat storage. Much like United, they have given their credit card holders a priority boarding group. At least the elite members of their Dividend Miles program get a higher priority (United has the same boarding priority for Gold and Silver elites as they do for their credit card holders). Finally they board from the rear forward beginning with zones 3-5. It’s a fairly straightforward process which is nice.

Virgin American Airbus A320 at LAX. Image by David Parker Brown / AirlineReporter.com.

Virgin American Airbus A320 at LAX. Image by David Parker Brown / AirlineReporter.com.

How does Virgin America board? –  Virgin American starts with allowing their First Class passengers to board before allowing folks with children and disabled people who need a little more time. Then they move on to Main Cabin Select, which are in the first row of economy and the exit rows so they have more legroom. The Main Cabin Select fare also comes with complimentary food and drinks and one free checked bag.  After those two groups, they board the Main Cabin Express group. Ultimately, this is just an add-on that you can purchase to be among the first to board.

Being that I really like to be sit near the front and be able to get off the plane as soon as possible, this fare is quite appealing. Finally, they move on to a group based boarding process, starting with A and moving through the alphabet. I recall on one flight it went groups A-D, but on another it went A-F.

STORY: Flying in Virgin America’s First Class

Hopefully this article can provide some insight the next time you are traveling and are curious about how different airlines board. In the comments, be sure to talk about your boarding experiences and which processes do you like (or hate the most)?

Related links in airline boarding:

This story written by…Colin Cook, Correspondent.Colin is an avid AvGeek who works in finance and is based in the Seattle area. He has an immense passion for aviation and loves to travel as much as possible.

@CRoscoe2121

APM Market Place: Airline Fees Aren’t That Evil

Allegiant MD-80 and Spirit Airbus A319 hanging out in Las Vegas. Photo by Joe (JX).

Allegiant MD-80 and Spirit Airbus A319 hanging out in Las Vegas. Photo by Joe (JX).

Recently, I was able to sit down at my local NPR studio and talk with Tess Vigeland about airlines and their fees. Previously, I wrote a story on how it makes sense that airlines, like Allegiant and Spirit, charge fees and how they aren’t that evil. Not that many people are fans of my thoughts on fees, but it is important for people to realize that they have a choice in what airline that they fly (on the most part) and voting with your wallet is the only way that policies will change. If you play your cards right, ultra-l0w cost carriers can provide substantial savings.

As for now, people have been voting by flying on Allegiant and Spirit more (my previous story shows the numbers), so why would they want to change their policies?

Anyhow, listen to the story above or read part of it on Market Place’s website.

Allegiant Air is Looking at Charging a Fee for Carry-On Bags

Allegiant Air MD-83 (N865GA) at LAX

Allegiant Air MD-83 (N865GA) at LAX

Allegiant Air has announced they are looking into the possibility of charging passengers a carry-on baggage fee. As reported by AviationWeek, Allegiant Air President Andrew Levy stated the carry-on baggage fees are “intriguing,” during a  presentation at the Low-Cost Airlines World Americas conference on May 3rd.

Currently, Spirit Airlines is the only US-based airline that charges for carry-on bags. They too are an ultra low cost carrier and first received a lot of flack when they announced the new fees. However, it doesn’t seem to bother travelers enough, since the airline has continued to make additional profit on the fees. For the first quarter of 2011, Spirit doubled their bag fee revenue compared to first quarter 2010 and average non-ticket revenue per passenger increased by 37.9%.

Remember, weight costs money. The more an airplane and its contents weighs, the more fuel (and money) it takes to fly. It might anger most people thinking about paying another fee, but why should someone with no luggage pay for someone with luggage? More importantly, why would airlines turn down this revenue maker? Charging for carry-ons doesn’t cause health concerns or kill anyone, so why do passengers keep acting like it is the end of the world to charge for carry-ons?

When asked what Allegiant’s future plans are for charging a carry-on bag fee, Jordan McGee Director of Allegian Corporate Communications explained, “It’s really too premature to provide any further info on potential charges for carry-ons.” However, she confirmed that Allegiant is, “considering it.”

For me, this is not a huge surprise and I have been waiting for Allegiant to announce such a fee. Allegiant’s model of providing cheap prices, with fees for everything beyond getting you from point A to B seems to welcome a new fee like this. You better believe other airlines are watching how Spirit and Allegiant are doing with carry-on fees and it might not just be ultra low cost carriers having them in the too near distant future.

Image: Brandon Farris

Opinion: Commercial Flights Should Commence at Paine Field

Paine Field already sees aircraft from Southwest, Alaska Airlines and Allegiant coming in for maintenance work. Why not for passengers?

Paine Field already sees aircraft from Southwest, Alaska Airlines and Allegiant coming in for maintenance work. Why not for passengers?

The fight for Seattle to get a second airport up north has been dragging on longer than many have expected. For those of you who do not live in the Seattle area, Allegiant and Horizon Airlines started to look into the possibility of flying out of Paine Field, which is located in Everett, WA. Talking to Horizon, Allegiant, Boeing and the airport recently, they all say there are currently no updates for the addition of commercial flights.

There are a lot of positives about adding commerical flights to Paine Field, but there are a lot of people who are fighting hard to “save our community”. Wait, what?

Since 1992 a group, called Save Our Community, has come together and tried to stop commerical aviation at Paine Field. Their main goal is to preserve, “the quality of life in this primarily residential area of Puget Sound.”

Now, I feel they do have a few good points. If the traffic at Paine Field is increased, this could cause issues for Boeing and possibly make them look to move their main factory to other parts of the country. Of course, no one would want that to happen.

However, I don’t think allowing commercial flights would cause Boeing to leave and there is surely a happy medium that could be reached. Adding commercial flights at Paine Field would create many new jobs in the Everett area with the need for additional hotels, increase in tourism and the hiring of airline workers.

Personally, I think the arguement that the quality of life for everyone around the airport would deteriate is just hogwash. During public forums in the Everett, WA area back in January 2010, many people felt that the Paine Field area would become dirty, filled with porn and crime, forcing people to leave. Many complained that they bought homes around an airport and are upset about the idea of increased flights. For me, many people seemed to be quite selfish about the matter.

I live in the flight path of Paine Field and bought my house fully well knowing that. Sure, I am a bit different since I actually enjoy aircraft flying over my house, but people shouldn’t assume to buy a house around a very large airport and not expect planes to fly over. People have complained that adding MD-80 and Q400 flights would be a huge nuisance, which is odd, since we already have Boeing 747’s and even the Dreamlifter, which are much bigger and louder, flying overhead. Not to mention the Boeing 737s that fly in all the time to get maintenance work done. Would adding a few smaller planes really make our lives that much worse? I feel the possibility of commercial flights coming out of Paine Field should be driven by market demand and not private citizens fearful for the value of their homes.

The Save Our Community website states that people who run Paine Field, “are going all out to declare war against the community by working to bring in air service to Paine Field.” Really? War? If people in the community come together and create a demand for air travel in and out of Paine Field, why shouldn’t airlines meet that demand? No airline is going to start flights to a new destination without expecting to make profit. It is not like airport and airline officials are getting together just to make your life worse. In fact, starting commercial traffic to Paine Field will make more people’s lives better.

Competition is a beautiful thing. If airlines are able to fly out of Paine Field, it will cause competition for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport  down south and for Bellingham International Airport up north. This means that not only will the airlines be competing for your business, but so will the airports.

Yes, some people will have to make some sacrifices, but we have to look at the greater good for our community. Could my house value drop if there is an increase of flights. Sure. Am I willing for that to happen for the greater good of the community — of course. What do you think? Would adding commercial flights at an airport that normally doesn’t have them, but could handle them be a good or bad thing?

 

Allegiant Gets Super Creative with Possible New Fuel Fares

Model of an Allegiant Boeing 757 located behind Allegiant CEO's cubicle at their headquarters in Las Vegas.

Model of an Allegiant Boeing 757 located behind Allegiant CEO's cubicle at their headquarters in Las Vegas.

Dan Webb on his blog, Things in the Sky, wrote up a story about Allegiant looking to possibly offer a new type of fare that changes with the cost of fuel.

In a filing to the Department of Transportation, Allegiant wants to have the option of offering a fare that could fluctuate based on the price of oil. This would mean you could buy a ticket for uber cheap now and then possibly have to pay more later if the price of oil goes up. This fare option would be in addition to their regular fares.

Is this crazy? Maybe, but again maybe not. Determining the price of fuel is a huge part of running an airline. Passengers will purchase tickets months in advance (especially leisure fliers, that Allegiant caters to) and there is no telling what the price of fuel will be when the flight actually happens. If airlines charge too little for tickets, they could end up losing money for that flight.

This new fare options, allows passengers to gamble on their airfare, which makes sense for the Las Vegas based airline. The big problem is, are most passengers savvy enough to understand the fuel-fare? And who would regulate that Allegiant would be raising fares properly based on fuel costs?

This could be taking the ala cart airline fees to the next level. Brett Snyder via BNET recently took a look how the traditional low cost carriers are growing and becoming more traditional. This leaves room for airlines like Allegiant to come up with creative ideas on how to add additional fees and revenue. People complained loudly when Spirit announced carry-on fees, but their low fares and fees have been very successful for them. Passengers seem to complain, but when faced with the option, they love the low fares and fees.

Even when I flew Allegiant, I got a bit overwhelmed by all the fees, but I flew for much cheaper than on any other airline — by quite a bit. Could fuel price-sharing be the future of ultra low cost carriers? Who knows, but Allegiant wants to be prepared if it is.

To see quotes from Allegiant and Southwest Airlines on this issue, check out my story on AOL Travel News.