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United Airlines attempts to fix boarding process headaches with new system

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© Provided by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. United Airlines is experimenting with eliminating three of its five boarding groups.

By Kari Paul, MarketWatch

Airlines are working to get passengers onto the plane faster.

The perennial struggle is familiar to most air travelers: the gate agent announces it’s time to board and dozens of people swarm the gate waiting for their group to be called. United Airlines (UAL) wants to streamline that process after complaints from passengers. It is experimenting with eliminating three of its five boarding groups, narrowing the system down to just two categories.

“Our customers have told us they want a better experience when boarding, including more communication and we are looking for ways to improve it for them,” a company spokeswoman told MarketWatch.

United is implementing the changes through a trial at its two biggest hubs: Chicago O’Hare and Houston George Bush Airports, as well as Los Angeles International Airport, the company announced Friday. The latest changes run counter to a strategy announced by American Airlines in 2017. American “simplified” its boarding process by creating nine distinct boarding groups. Delta Airlines (AAL)  has four zones.

Boarding is just one of many headaches passengers complain about regarding air travel: In 2017, flyers surveyed by website Airfarewatchdog.com said air travel “leaves a lot to be desired.”

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Last year was a public relations nightmare for some airlines. In April 2017, a video of a man being dragged from a full United Airlines flight went viral online, bringing into question the policy of overbooking flights.

But customer satisfaction with air travel increased 6 points in 2018, according to a study released last month by J.D. Power, largely due to efforts to improve travel across the airline industry, according to Brian Sumers, airline reporter for travel industry site Skift.

Airlines are updating their in-flight menus and experimenting with mindfulness and meditation perks, and providing exercise in flights. Some airlines are even floating the idea of using air cargo space that currently transports luggage for human passengers.

“This is a great time to be a traveler,” Sumers said. “For the most part, planes are on-time, cabins are clean, service is acceptable, and the food, while rarely free, is increasingly edible. And when things do go wrong, airlines are empowering customers—especially those who download mobile apps—to make their own decisions about rebooking.”

United Airlines came in fifth place in the J.D. Powers customer satisfaction ranking, preceded by American Airlines at No. 4, Air Canada at No. 3, Delta Air Lines at No. 2, and Alaska Airlines at No.1.

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