Why American Airlines Respects Passenger Time During Boarding – United And Delta Do Not

American Airlines boards narrowbody aircraft 35 minutes or less prior to departure (a smaller Airbus A319 boards just 30 minutes before departure). That’s plenty of time to board a full aircraft, even with a planeload of carry on bags.

In contrast, United and Delta board these same flights 40 minutes prior to departure. Passengers get on the plane and sit longer. Delta started boarding domestic narrowbody flights 40 minutes prior to departure last June coinciding with the start of boarding pay for flight attendants.

United Airlines is testing moving from 5 to 6 boarding groups, with no change to group 3 boarding and earlier: (HT: JonNYC)

  • Global Services, 1Ks, families with children under 2 and uniformed military still board before group 1
  • Group 1 is premium cabin passengers and mid-tier elites and above
  • Group 2 is bottom-tier elites, credit card customers and those who purchased priority boarding
  • Group 3 is window seat passengers and nonrevs
  • Group 4 is middle seat passengers
  • Group 5 is aisle seat passengers
  • Group 6 is basic economy

Passengers on the same reservation are supposed to receive the earliest boarding group of anyone in the party.

The problem with United’s boarding, though, isn’t just that they board earlier but how their gates are set up: boarding pens. Passengers line up in their assigned group, with each group having a different area (airport and gate-allowing), far in advance of boarding.

If you’re in group 1 you may be at the back of a line that snakes around the gate area even queueing prior to the start of boarding. If you’re in group 3-5 you may wind up without overhead bin space unless you line up 15 minutes before the start of boarding. That’s a huge waste of time. If you must have boarding pens, then be like Southwest and do 30 minute boarding.

American Airlines, in contrast, has a priority lane and a general boarding line. Passengers are called to come to their respective line when it is their turn to board. No one has to stand there like an idiot, wasting time.

To be sure this isn’t the only thing that goes into respecting a customer’s time. Delta Air Lines still operates on-time more frequently than American does, based on the latest available Department of Transportation statistics. However the gap isn’t nearly as big as it used to be, with Delta cancelling far more flights than they did prior to the pandemic. And it’s important for American, which still doesn’t perform consistently as well as Delta with on-time arrivals, to leverage the advantage that it has.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. […] United Airlines will change its boarding process, starting October 26th. According to an internal memo, United is boarding planes two minutes slower than they were prior to the pandemic. And so they’re moving to what they call WILMA, which is basically ‘Window Middle Aisle,” and adding a new sixth boarding group for domestic flights. The airline tested this in May. […]


  1. American respects passenger time, eh? I had to fire them several years ago after 9 consecutive flights that were either delayed or canceled. That’s right. Nine. Switched to Delta and haven’t had but maybe one or two delays in over 6 years.

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