Back To The Future: Delta Air Lines Returns To Boarding Zones, Downgrades Diamond Elites

Delta Air Lines is moving from ‘branded boarding’ to having 8 boarding zones starting May 1, although things are even more complicated than that because there are still groups that are called to board before and in the middle of those zones.

This is supposed to streamline boarding and be better for customers by… copying American and United, and copying Delta itself from 2017.

According to the airline, group (zone) numbers is supposed to make boarding simpler and clearer, compared to naming the category of passenger or ticket that they’re calling.

Here’s a comparison of their changes:

This is mostly just changing the names for their boarding groups. Instead of calling “Delta One or First Class” and calling “Comfort+” they’re admitting that no one pays attention to Delta’s names other than Delta themselves and the most frequent flyers. So they’re going to call Zone 1, Zone 2, etc.

But they’re also making some subtle changes to their boarding order as part of this.

  • Delta’s top tier Diamond members boarding after business class, in their own group, they get to board with premium economy. Gate agents will no longer call for Diamond medallion members to board. Diamonds will just be part of ‘zone 2 boarding.’

  • Delta 360 members will get to ‘pre-board’ ahead of zone 1, instead of boarding with business or first class. Delta’s secretive 360 program, akin to United Global Services and American Airlines ConciergeKey, becomes more privileged and with more definition as part of this change.

But less confusing? There’s still Pre-Boarding before zone 1, and “Early Access” between diamond members and those sitting in extra legroom coach. that’s customers traveling with car seats and stollers. And that’s different from pre-boarding which is those in need of more time or assistance and active military. What if you need more time to break down your stroller?

Branded Boarding Was An Odd Failure

Delta rolled out its current ‘branded boarding’ scheme in 2019 and the purpose was to try to upsell passengers to more expensive products that boarded earlier (were higher status).

What they’re doing in returning to zones is a flashback to what they had in 2017 and 2018, except that most customers with elite status board later than they used to (“Sky Priority”).

Credit: Delta

Those poles were marketed as an ‘enhancement’ to benefit customers back in 2017. Only an airline would consider boarding poles with zone numbers an enhancement. And only Delta would be so bold as to call zone numbers an enhancement twice.

Why Boarding Is Taking Longer Now

There are fewer business travelers, and more leisure travelers. Frequent flyers tend to board more quickly. Traditional business travelers also may have been taking day trips with fewer carry on items. Business trips with leisure add-ons involve more bags for longer stays. It’s likely that a combination of changing passenger compositions, flying different kinds of trips, is lengthening how long it takes to board.

Even A Couple Of Minutes Delay Is Costly

Airlines constantly try to optimize their boarding process, since short delays in boarding mean that each flight takes a little longer, which adds up over the course of a day. Even two minutes per flight across half a dozen domestic flight segments could mean that the airline isn’t able to schedule its last flight at as optimal a time to sell to passengers (for instance, it might push past 8 p.m. which could lead to lower sales). Or, if keeping to its original schedule, may mean more delayed flights and even misconnecting passengers.

The Most Efficient Boarding System Doesn’t Work In Practice

Many studies have found that optimal boarding looks like

  • Back to front
  • Window to aisle
  • Skipping a row of passengers at a time (for instance boarding row 30, then row 28, before going to 29 and then 27) to give people plenty of room

That way everyone has space, and no one is delaying another passenger. Everyone can sit down right away, and get out of the way.

But this theoretical boarding runs into practical problems right away. You can’t actually board seat 30A, then 28A, before letting the middle and aisle seat in row 30 board. People are traveling together and expect to board together. Some of those people traveling together are families with small children. Others provide each other with assistance, even if a wheelchair isn’t required.

Then airlines have commercial considerations that trade off with ‘most-efficient’ boarding. Early boarding (or out of sequence boarding) is a benefit that they market to their most frequent flyers (elite status benefit). It’s also a benefit that helps them to market co-brand credit cards, which are their highest margin product.

And so each airline tweaks their boarding process, trying to get a little bit more efficient, but not going all out requiring passengers to split up purely based on their seat assignment.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. By my count, this is the 5th change since 2018ish. So, Delta is shafting diamonds yet again. So much for the loyalty division’s claims that diamonds are Delta’s most important customers. It’s more evidence that 360 is the new diamond. Premium economy should be with Sky Priority, not diamonds. And while I get Delta wants people to buy first or business, is someone flying once a year on a paid first-class ticket more important than a road warrior with diamond status who flies every week but isn’t on a paid first-class ticket?

    Give it a year and we’ll have a new boarding order.

  2. @ Gary @ FNT — How is this “downgrading” or “shaffing” Diamonds? I see no change. The REAL change that is needed is that gate agents need to STOP allowing DIamonds to board with First Class. In major hubs, like DTW or ATL, it is half the freakin’ plane sometimes. First Class needs to be FIRST.

  3. Delta already is PERFECT…why do they need to change the boarding procedures?

  4. Come May 1, 2024, Delta’s elite, discerning guests will experience an elevated, curated, and premium boarding experience.

  5. There ought to be at least 12 boarding zones , adding special accommodations for people with dogs , people with children , people with their own food containers , and people with more than two carry-on bags .

  6. LOL Delta telling Diamonds they’re #2, not #1 with them. Keep descending as Rene says, and once you’ve lost Rene…

    UNITED has its 1K priorities straight

    AA puts EXP with first class

  7. The two worst positions in both setups are “Active military” -why do we elevate these people to god-like status? – and “Early Access”. Car seats and strollers are the ticket to preferred boarding?

  8. @Gene, the American military is not a respected institution. Military service in America is not compulsory, and nobody volunteers unless they are bereft of options.

  9. It’s not just active-duty. Gate agents routinely let retirees. And nobody checks for a military ID or travel orders. So lots of abuse. On routes like Hawaii and Florida, among others, there can be 10-15 “military” boarding. Toss in another 50-70 golds and higher.

  10. I have noticed more and more people, without any physical needs, are taking advantage of the pre-boarding. Unfortunately, the gate agents are just letting anyone board without questioning them.

  11. This will AGAIN be a Dismal Failure! Why can’t DL learn from past MISTAKES???

  12. Won’t really matter in the US. Gate agents usually don’t enforce the groups anyway. It ends up being a free for all and with 30+ pre boards I’ve been backed up on the jetway 60 back while trying to board D1. This isn’t a problem in Asia as the gate agents control the boarding process.
    As for the military I seldom see any traveling Delta. The military moves you the cheapest way possible. And that ain’t Delta.

  13. Hey, James and High Class—try to sell your position on the military to those amazing men and women jetting you around from the first and second seat! Delta Airlines has always preferentially hired former military pilots to fly their airplanes. Respect them, respect them all; for our military and their families sacrifice in ways which would be unimaginable to the likes of you two.

  14. @High class professional

    “ nobody volunteers unless they are bereft of options.”
    Really? I had plenty of options but chose to be a 3rd generation soldier. Good thing people like me do this or it would be compulsory and we would have been forced to serve with no class professionals.

  15. @James N
    @High class professional
    @FNT Delta Diamond

    Too bad you feel inconvenienced by our Military Heroes.


  16. @ Tom AndersonPecus — Check what exactly? “Customers needing more time…” If someone is an entitled jerk who feels they need extra time, they have met the requirement.

  17. By gosh the esteemed nerds in the planning cubicles have done it again. Making Delta’s new goat rope a premium experience for all. Bravo!

  18. The military reflects the sad state of humanity. An institution whose sole purpose is to use its disposable pions to kill other nations’ disposable pions, in the name of “defending” our “freedom.” Using constructs like honor, loyalty, and bravery to brainwash its young, impressionable recruits. What is most depressing is that it’s vitally necessary because of humanity’s tribalistic nature which it can’t seem to overcome.

  19. FNT and others, get over yourselves and your silly airline status. The lowest army private is more useful to this country than all the delta diamonds put together.

  20. On my last 4 trips on Delta over the last 10 days, boarding first was less than optimal. On two of the flights, we sat for an hour — once waiting for the captain and another waiting for A/C because the APU was inoperative and the crew couldn’t start the engines.. All four flights were at least one hour late.

    So much for Delta operational reliability.

  21. @high class professional. As a retired senior military officer I find your comment offensive. I joined the military to serve my country, not because I was “bereft of options”. I served with other like minded highly qualified patriotic men and women. As a civilian road warrior I am grateful that the airlines honor their service by allowing them to pre-board.

  22. IMO it’s another unforced error. Delta boarding feels elevated thanks to the creative application of its brand voice. WIth 1, 2, 3, 4, ..8 this summer it will be a cattle call just like UA or Southwest. Lines will form… inexperienced travelers know how to count.

  23. This change is good for me, given that I fly First

    The number of people who pre board and the number of Diamonds is insane out of MSP

    It can be half of the plane.
    MSP to Chicago on a Monday morning or Thursday afternoon can be even more than half the plane. When everyone is Diamond, nobody is diamond.

    I don’t understand why people needing extra time to board should go first. They should go last.

    If they go last then they have lots of time to board because you’re essentially standing waiting for the person in front of you to get in their seat.

    It should be

    People in wheelchairs and maybe military.
    First and 360
    Premium economy
    Delta credit card
    People needing extra time

  24. @jcil
    All that you say about military members may be true.
    That said, i still dont see the justification for why they get preferential boarding. This happens in no other country, why does it have to happen here? I’ve read what everybody here has written, and still havent seen one good reason offered. Just seems like pandering to me. Why not teachers, firemen, policemen, etc, others who sacrifice for the good of others? Doesnt make sense.

  25. @Jake-1

    If you are going to disparage the military, atleast don’t look like an idiot doing so.

    A “pion” is used in physics

    A “peon” is a low ranking working.

    Either way, makes you look like PITA

  26. Well, we certainly got “off course” here. Let me get this out of the way…my father was a veteran. I am not. I see no reason why we can’t honor our active military and allow them to board first. It’s the least we can do.

    Now, on to these “changes”…uh…I don’t really see any??? The branding was a ploy to upsell leisure travelers taking their NEXT trip. It didn’t work. If I’m not in first it looks like Sky Pri is boarding in the same place so I’m still not really seeing the big change?

  27. So most of the flying public is grifters and hosers? right? The never ending boarding priorities is ridiculous. Soon you’ll be sitting on the wing.

  28. “…atleast don’t look like an idiot doing so.” and “A “peon” is a low ranking working.”

    Physician, heal thyself.

  29. U.S.-based airlines that participate in PreCheck could easily figure out who is currently affiliated with DoD and put them in Zone 1, Boarding Group 1, or whatever. I thought the point of this early boarding was so members of the military who cannot be separated from their carry-ons for various reasons could secure overhead bin space. Currently, military usually travel in civilian clothes on commercial airlines so they cannot be targeted as easily, so it seems silly that the airlines parade them in front of hundreds of people.

  30. For me, I hope they bring back the boarding stations. Worst aspect of flying is the boarding process. Everyone stand in a herd and then play the game “excuse me are you in line”?

  31. Something tells me Delta has someone on payroll whose job it is to monitor boarding and come up with a new scheme every few years.

    And its obvious this person is NOT a frequent flyer.

  32. @James N “Why do we elevate these people to god like status”
    For someone who believes in conspiracy theories, you will never figure it out!

  33. Oh, look, the AI bot Rog has returned to the fold. The comments made by the system proves they haven’t worked out the bugs.

  34. Airlines need to flush out two things to improve boarding planes & improve passengers’ experiences: 1. Why do people want to be the 1st to get on a plane (how can you address these reasons without criterias exceptions used to board earlier?
    2. Is boarding back to front faster than any other option? If yes, then airlines needed to decide if “faster” is truly their priority. If so, then board back to front.

  35. I’m a road warrior, a DM, and a veteran. I board when they call active and retired Military…and always show my ID.

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