United Airlines is introducing a new boarding method to improve efficiency. Commencing on October 26, this system primarily targets basic economy ticket holders, the majority of passengers on most flights.
The WILMA Method
United’s new boarding system is based on the “WILMA” approach: Window, Middle, and Aisle. Under the new method:
- First to board are passengers with window seats.
- Those occupying middle seats will board next.
- Finally, passengers with aisle seats will be the last to board.
The WILMA method was put to the test at several locations and has been shown to decrease boarding time by up to two minutes. The University of Nevada’s Associate Professor, Jason Steffen, emphasizes the efficiency of the method as it allows more passengers to store their luggage simultaneously. This streamlined approach is expected to ease congestion and expedite the boarding process.
Details of the Change
- The boarding order for unaccompanied minors, travelers with disabilities, families with young children, and active-duty military remains unchanged.
- Boarding groups one through three will now incorporate First and Business-class travelers, those situated in exit rows, and those in economy with window seats.
- The fourth group is exclusively for passengers with middle seats.
- The fifth group comprises those with aisle seats.
- United will introduce a sixth boarding group for passengers lacking a group number on their boarding pass. However, details about which passengers this pertains to remain unclear. By checking in, passengers can determine their seat type (window, middle, or aisle) based on their boarding group.
This change will be implemented on U.S. domestic flights, including those from the U.S. to the Caribbean, Canada, and select cities in Central and South America.
Why the Change?
- Boarding time has risen by approximately two minutes since 2019. With such inefficiencies, especially on shorter routes, delays can easily accumulate, resulting in significant scheduling issues.
- Over the past decade, airlines have been adjusting the boarding process, especially since many started charging for checked bags. This has led to more passengers opting for carry-on bags, which in turn slows down boarding. Two minutes might seem trivial on a lengthy flight, but for shorter routes, even minor delays can have a domino effect. A slight hold-up in boarding can result in official statistics recording a flight as delayed.
The Quest for Efficiency
Airlines have forever been in search of the optimal boarding procedure. The WILMA method is just the latest in a long line of strategies. American Airlines adopted a nine-group system in 2017 and made further adjustments in 2023. Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, made changes to its three-group system earlier this year.
Other Boarding Methods
John Milne from Clarkson University in New York, an expert who has co-authored numerous articles on airplane boarding, vouches for the “reverse pyramid” approach, which he believes is faster than WILMA. Milne’s proposed method involves four boarding groups:
- First, passengers with window seats in the plane’s rear half.
- Second, those with middle seats in the back and window seats in the front.
- Third, travelers with middle seats in the front and aisle seats at the back.
- Finally, passengers with aisle seats in the plane’s front half.
Passenger Feedback and Concerns
While United Airlines has expressed optimism about the new system, it is still too early to gauge the general passenger response. Travelers have often expressed concerns about boarding changes, with worries centered on longer wait times and overhead bin space availability.
Given the new structure, passengers who book window seats might have an advantage in accessing the coveted and limited overhead bin space earlier. This raises questions about whether passengers will now prefer window seats over aisles for this added benefit.
It remains to be seen how this change will impact the overall travel experience, but United is hopeful that the new boarding system will streamline operations and provide passengers with a smoother journey. The airline has assured that priority boarding, including for those with disabilities and top-tier frequent flyers, will remain unaffected, and there will be no changes to the boarding privileges of passengers in first and business class.