Boarding a commercial flight, with passengers navigating their way into tight seating, is a logistical challenge that major US airlines face multiple times daily. United Airlines, the airline with the largest fleet, is introducing a new approach to streamline this process. The airline aims to enhance its six-group boarding procedure to potentially save up to two minutes of boarding time.
Effective from October 26, United’s new strategy will prioritize boarding window seat passengers in economy class without frequent flyer status after the initial boarding groups. This will be followed by passengers in middle seats, and lastly, those in aisle seats. This method, termed WILMA (window-middle-aisle), underwent testing at various domestic stations and proved to be faster, as per a company memo.
An added advantage of this change is that passengers booking window seats might have a better chance at securing space in the often limited overhead bins.
John Milne from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, emphasizes the significance of efficient boarding. He mentions that even a minute’s reduction in airplane turn time can translate to savings amounting to several hundred million dollars annually for a major airline. The real benefit arises when reduced boarding time allows an airline to schedule an additional flight within the day.
This initiative by United is among several recent changes in boarding procedures by major US airlines. For instance, American Airlines transitioned to a nine-group boarding system in 2017 and further refined it in 2023. Southwest Airlines, known for not assigning seats, also made adjustments to its three-group boarding system earlier this year.
Milne suggests an alternative “reverse pyramid” method comprising four boarding groups, which he believes is faster than WILMA. However, he acknowledges that while there are even more efficient methods, they might introduce complexity that airlines might not be willing to adopt.
It’s worth noting that United’s new boarding procedure will not affect pre-boarding for passengers with disabilities or those with top-tier frequent flyer status. Similarly, there are no changes for group one, which consists of first and business class passengers.