Boarding Changes Reward Higher-Paying Travelers

In attempt to ease rush for luggage space, carriers are charging passengers more to get on the plane sooner

Airlines have made overhead bin space a valuable commodity by putting more seats on planes and charging for checked bags. Passengers, as a result, have tried to get on the plane as soon as possible to claim their storage space, causing crowded aisles and even delayed flights. Airlines established the new boarding processes to ease that tension while satisfying their higher-paying customers and frequent fliers.

Delta Air Lines Inc.’s new boarding procedures announced this month highlight the growing importance of big spenders to carriers. Delta will divide its passengers into as many as eight boarding groups, up from six. Passengers in four of those groups board before the main cabin. The price difference for top ticket types, which currently include dedicated bin space, can be as little as $40 for a seat with extra legroom to a couple hundred dollars more for first class, with many variations in between.

The boarding moves may be aimed at rewarding loyal customers, but some see them as a way for carriers to charge more.

“The truth is they found a covert way to charge for carry-on bags,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry research and advisory firm. “The more you pay, the more valuable you are, the better your chances of getting on the airplane sooner and finding a spot.”

United Continental Holdings Inc.tweaked its boarding groups in September, moving some of its top-tier fliers to earlier slots after deciding that it was squeezing too many categories into one of its boarding groups.American Airlines Group Inc. made similar changes last year, introducing nine boarding groups in a bid to streamline the process, and this year started installing placards to denote bin space reserved for premium seats.

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The changes have made getting passengers aboard even more complex, as airlines juggle to reward competing groups.

“How many ways can you slice and dice?” said Jay Sorensen, an industry consultant who specializes in loyalty and marketing programs. “Even people with priority probably don’t feel like they’re priority anymore because there’s someone above them.”

Gareth Joyce, senior vice president of airport customer service at Delta, said Delta’s new process is aimed at making boarding go more smoothly. Groups will be smaller, and customers will have a better idea of what to expect, something employees and customers have advocated.

“We’ve got to continuously figure out how to take some stress out of the boarding process,” he said, adding that main-cabin customer satisfaction jumped this year when Delta put no-frills basic-economy passengers in their own group at the back of the line.

Mr. Harteveldt said Delta’s new boarding techniques might cut down on confusion and be quicker, but it is also an incentive for passengers to pay up to avoid checking their bag at the gate. Airlines generally check carry-on luggage at the gate for free, but that means passengers have to wait to pick up their bags when they land.

For Delta, domestic first class was once a loss leader with the majority of seats being filled by free upgrades, but now 60% of the passengers in those seats pay for them. Premium products drive over 30% of Delta’s revenue, doubling since 2011, and margins in premium cabins are three times higher than in coach.

Kim Lord, a management consultant who travels weekly, recently broke into Delta’s top published status tier, which boards first after people who need assistance and other pre-boarders. Under the new system, her group will shrink, meaning even shorter waits and first crack at bin space. “Everyone wants to have their bag right above their seat,” she said. “That’s the top priority.”

The new approach is putting some frequent fliers on edge, however. Joel Natt, who travels from his home in Atlanta to serve his cybersecurity customers, said he has one of the highest status levels at Delta, but would likely end up being pushed to a later boarding group on some flights.

“It looks that the one-time revenue person is now more important than the frequent traveler,” he said.

Andrew Watterson, Southwest Airlines Co.’s chief revenue officer, said the airline’s free checked-bag policy helps keep the number of bulky suitcases under control. And the carrier’s numerical system of boarding eases conflicts.

“There’s an inherent fairness to lining up,” he said. “You’re not trying to elbow your neighbor out of the way—you know exactly when you’re getting on the plane.”

Passengers, however, can buy a more expensive ticket to board earlier and have their pick of seats—and earlier access to bins. Southwest last year raked in $358 million from an early check-in service that lets passengers pay to boost their spot in line. The option has been so popular that Southwest recently raised the price on some routes to better manage the number of people using it.

Airlines say they are trying to make the boarding process more palatable for everyone.

Some new planes, like Delta’s Airbus A220-100s which are slated to start flying next year, have enough bin space for everyone to bring a carry-on. Airlines including Delta, American and United have been retrofitting older planes with bins that can fit more bags.

American spokesman Ross Feinstein said the airline is working as quickly as possible to add larger bins, adding that bin space for all is the long-term goal. Delta said travelers on medium or long-haul domestic flights already stand a good chance of boarding a plane with expanded bin space.

Airlines also are trying to tamp down on needless queuing and crowding by investing in better signs and alerts that let passengers know when it is time to head to the gate.

Some United customers were lining up an hour before they needed to, said Maria Walter, managing director of global operations strategy. The airline’s five boarding lanes drew people into line too early. United still has five boarding groups but now there are only two lanes, and gate agents direct later groups to stay seated until they’re called. The result has been less time in line and a quicker boarding process, according to the airline.

“Boarding is a psychology experiment,” Ms. Walter said. “You have to get 150 people through one door in a 20-minute period.”