On my recent trip to Chicago with United to experience their new United Club cuisine, we were shown something that the airline had been working on. Something that would have been obvious to so many, but that not so much to others. United has been working on many different ways to improve their boarding experience.
We have all had a bad boarding experience. A delayed flight, people massing at the gates (gate lice), no order at all, bad communication, and confusion. Airlines all board aircraft in different fashions, and each airline has someone (or a team) of people, who are consistently re-evaluating how the boarding process can efficient. Some new methods work well, others are silently stopped and never spoken about again.
But what is sometimes forgotten about in the boarding process is what that gate area looks like, how it is handled, and how passengers actually feel about it. United has decided to take a look at all of these factors and decided on trying a new boarding experience — one where even passengers had some role in the decision-making process.
Chicago O’Hare is an airport that is dominated by United. It is one of their primary hubs and is also the hometown to the airline. What better place to do some research, and decide on the new boarding experience and gate design for the airline?
United already had some of their updated designs being used at a number of gates at O’Hare and they seem to make a statement. Before the overall design was decided on, they had already put out new podiums and signage at many gates. The new podiums are built at a lower height, allowing the gate agent to feel more approachable. They have installed nice flat panel monitors on easy-to-move mountings, so that they can turn the monitor around and show the customer instead of their typing being a secretive process.
During the testing phase of the “new gate,” United set up several different areas with multiple versions of what they wanted to implement. The goal was to see which one worked the best in a real-life situation. This is a great win for the passenger, as airlines can now see exactly what we have to say about something we experience.
The change to the boarding experience comes from the way the gate is designed. United uses a “Group” boarding process, with Group 1 for higher-tier elites and first class, Group 2 for lower-tier elites, and other early boarding groups and rolling on down to Group 5. In the last 12-15 months they have begun to help separate these groups in the gate area, but in some cases it just did not go far enough. United has taken it to the next level and have clearly created five boarding lanes now.
As you can see in the image above, they have some poles that are very “Southwest-esque” however unlike Southwest these are not there to stand next to. These become the start of the boarding lanes, and with a retractable belt at one end, they can open and close the lanes as needed. This is a great way to end that boarding mess and means that if you are Group 1, you are not fighting through the people lining up for Group 5.
Some of you might think that creating lanes for boarding is bringing you back to feeling like children, lining up going to school. But it actually creates order and means that you are not having to feel stressed in working out who is boarding when or in what order. Everyone and everything has its place.
The final part of the boarding experience puzzle is the waiting around in the gate area. Gone are the days of the hard metal or plastic benches (or even ones with slightly crappy cushions).
United has introduced different types of seating to the area, from comfortable, couch-like seating to the standard row seating, to even bar-height seating. The one thing that is common throughout is going to be outlets – lots and lots of power outlets!
United has been criticized by many (even us) for being slow of updating the passenger experience post their merger with Continental. But it looks like the airline might have found its stride and are trying to improve. With an airline so large, it might not come quickly, but it is nice to know that at least it is coming.
Note: United provided the author’s flight to/from ORD and accommodations during his visit — all opinions are his own.