Delta Air Lines’ new boarding process loads big spenders and loyal customers first

A Delta Air Lines employee assists a passenger near the check-in counters for Delta Air Lines at Beijing Capital International Airport in China. The carrier announced a new boarding process that begins Jan. 23.
(Mark Schiefelbein / Associated Press)

Getting passengers onto a plane in the most efficient, and potentially most profitable, way possible is a favorite study topic for air carriers and academics.

Delta Air Lines is going to try something different: boarding based on what the passengers paid, whether in cash or loyalty points.

Under the system that starts Jan. 23, Delta will no longer board based on six zones sorted by row number. Instead, passengers will board based on eight types of ticket brands.


Currently, the first passengers to board — after families with children and others in the pre-boarding group — are called “Premium” passengers, which is not a ticket brand but a term that includes Delta One suites, Premium Select and other high-priced expensive fares. Delta says lumping such fliers together is confusing.

Under the new process, a Delta employee at the gate will first announce boarding for the high-priced Delta One suites. First Class passengers on domestic flights or Delta Premium Select fliers on international flights will board next.

The last passengers to board will be those who bought the bare-bones “Basic Economy” ticket.

Delta representatives say the new system is designed to make boarding less confusing because the type of ticket fliers buy will determine when they will board, in most cases. The airline is adding a color designation to each ticket and installing bigger display screens at the gate to reduce confusion.

Academics who have studied airline boarding procedures say the new Delta boarding process isn’t the most efficient. Instead, they say, it is intended to entice passengers to buy more expensive ticket brands to board sooner.

“A change like that is more readily apparent in the bottom line of an airline,” said R. John Milne, an associate professor of engineering and management at Clarkson University School of Business in New York, who wrote a study on boarding procedures.


The quickest way to board a plane, Milne said, would be to load passengers from the window seats first, then the middle seats and the aisle seats last. Also, airlines should load with a focus on how many bags each passenger has so that fliers aren’t blocking the aisle looking for overhead bin space, he said.

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