Here's How the Major Airlines Determine When and How You Board


Whether you are a frequent flier or an occasional traveler, you know the frustration that can be involved when boarding a plane. Climbing over people to get to a seat is always a hassle. Wouldn't it be nice if you could have boarded the plane and gotten into your window seat before the person in the aisle seat? (See also: How to Get Through the Airport Faster)

What's worse, there's never enough overhead storage and someone is going to be forced to check their bag when they didn't want to. How do you make sure you get on the plane early enough to ensure that there is space for you?

And what if you need extra time to get children situated before the plane takes off? How can you board the plane as early as possible?

The answer to each of those questions really depends on which airline you are flying. There are five different ways that an airline determines who boards the plane. Read on to learn about each of those. (See also: 10 Ways to Get Free Airline Tickets)

First Come, First to Board

Southwest appears to be the only airline that boards in this fashion, and it is because they do not assign seats ahead of time. Their boarding process is based on when you check into your flight, with a few exceptions. Southwest prioritizes their boarding passes as "Group A," "Group B," and "Group C."

Group A

Group A is comprised of Business Select travelers, which are limited to 15 tickets per flight; "A-List" members, who are frequent fliers who have flown 25 (or more) flights in a calendar year; and anyone who has paid for "Early Bird Check-In." Early Bird Check-In costs $10 and automatically checks you into your flight 36 hours before departure. It does not guarantee you a Group A boarding pass, but Southwest says your chances are pretty good.

Group B and Group C

Group B is usually those who checked into their flight 24 hours (and as close to that 24 hour mark as possible) in advance. Group C will be anyone who checked-in at the airport or only a few hours prior to their flight. You could also get in this group if your flight is full and there's a lot of people checking in early. (See also: Tricks to Make Flying in Coach Feel Luxurious)

There are many exceptions to these "rules." Families with small children, those who need assistance, or people with disabilities board before Group B. Another exception occurs when someone with a Group A boarding pass cancels their flight at the last minute. A person checking in after that cancellation will take their spot, rather than everyone else moving up.

Priority Boarding First, Then Zone Boarding

United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, US Airways, and many other airlines use similar systems for boarding planes. The priority passengers who board the plane first consist of those with disabilities, uniformed military, and preferred customers. Preferred customer status depends on the airline.

US Airways

On US Airways, first class boards first. This group is followed by each of the following groups, in order.

  • Those with seats in the bulkhead or emergency exit rows.
  • Another group of select rewards members.
  • The final group, beginning with seats at the back of the plane and ending with those at the front.

American Airlines (and Many Others)

For American Airlines, when you board depends on whether your flight is domestic or international, but generally this means first class boards first followed by elite members. This is followed by zone boarding based on where your seat is starting in the back of the plane and moving to the front. Other airlines like Delta, Virgin, Continental, Frontier, and JetBlue all board their planes in a similar way.

United Airlines boards their planes slightly differently but still within the "priority first, and then in zones" scheme. The first two groups are priority groups consisting of first class and elite frequent fliers. The remaining three groups are based on where your seat is. Boarding order is window seats, then middle seats, and finally aisle seats. (If you are traveling with someone, you should board the plane when the person with the earliest pass is called.)

Back and Forth Rotation

AirTran boards their planes in zones, but the zones are assigned by seat location and rotate back and forth. The first to board are business class and then a zone in the back of the plane followed by a zone in the front of the plane. This back and forth is rotated until the plane has completely boarded.

As you can see, airlines differ in how they assign boarding passes. If you are planning a trip and want to make sure that you can fit your carry-on luggage into the overhead bins, it may be beneficial for you to consider how your plane will be boarded before purchasing your ticket. As with all airlines and most businesses, being a frequent customer has its benefits. Be sure to sign up for any rewards cards you can to reap the most benefits and board the plane when you really want to. (See also: Best Travel Reward Credit Cards)

Any airline boarding quirks I've missed? Any boarding tricks you've figured out? Let me know in comments!

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