Delta’s New Boarding Process Makes It Seem Like The Airline Has Nothing Better To Do

Sometimes it just feels like Delta has run out of important things to spend time working on. Last week’s announcement of a seems like something that really didn’t need to happen. To hear Delta talk about it, you’d think this was a world-changing innovation.

Zone boarding, an aviation standard for decades, will soon be a thing of the past for Delta customers as the airline makes a global shift to boarding by branded fare purchased.

Let me translate that for you:

We still haven’t found anything better than zone boarding, but if we change the name from zone number to branded fare type, then we can pretend we’ve done away with zone boarding AND make you feel bad for buying a cheap fare.

Nobody has ever been able to solve the boarding problem, because nobody has been willing to eliminate all the carve-outs to allow early boarding for people in the premium cabin, active-duty military, left-handed girls, credit card holders, people with a last name starting with “Z,” elite members of the frequent flier program, men with heterochromia, and those who have paid for priority boarding. I’ve said it before, and I still think Northwest had it right when it just swung open the door and told everyone to get on and shut up. But thanks to all these carve-outs, those days are long gone.

Many airlines have settled on this idea of zones, and Delta is no exception. Instead of calling by rows, Delta just groups people into zones depending upon whatever its algorithm decides that day. You board when your zone is called. The nice thing about this is that airlines can then change their boarding order without changing the process. They can just shuffle which seats fall into which zone. I personally find it works pretty well from that perspective.

The perceived problem with numbered-zone boarding, I suppose, is that people start to feel like second-class citizens when they’re down at the bottom. For example, American recently renamed its zones, and it now has 10 of them. The first is just for fancy Concierge Key members and has no number, but then it’s groups 1 through 9 from there with group 9 being those who are either traveling in Basic Economy or those who have ever published a negative social media comment about American.*

(*Probably not true. Probably.)

There’s something very impersonal about being told you’re in group 3 or 7 or whatever, but American still thought it was better to give everyone a group number instead of having a bunch of non-numbered groups with numbers starting halfway through, as United does. (I tend to agree.) United may only have 5 groups, but that’s because a ton of groups get to board before they start the numbers.

But is there really an issue here with how the numbering works? Maybe Delta has done some deep research work to find out that yes, people hate this and want a different way. Either that or someone just got the grand idea that it was time for a shift regardless of any hard data showing that it would be better. (I’d put money on the latter.)

Here’s what’s happening:

Branded Boarding

Delta has now expanded from having 6 zones to having 8 of them. Premium has been split up so that Delta One (business class) now boards separately from Premium Select (premium economy). Also, Comfort+ has been split out from Sky Priority. So, uh, how is this eliminating boarding zones?

It’s not. It’s just eliminating the numbers (mostly). Every separate branded fare product has its own boarding group (coach has three and those are numbered). To make things even more thrilling, each cabin will have its own “color accent” to distinguish between the different offerings.

The differences in colors are relatively subtle, and I really don’t think their inclusion is going to help the boarding process at all. To me, this just seems like a branding exercise that has nothing to do with efficiency. I understand brand is important, but it’s not clear to me that this will really help enhance the brands in any way. It’s not like someone will board and say “man, now that I see the colors, I wish I would have bought Delta One.”

Instead, what we’ll see is that those in the premium cabin will still board at the same time and not care about if there are numbers or not. And those in the back will now board at the same time, but they will be publicly shamed for having bought the cheap fare. Before, Group 4 may have been a less overt way of saying “Hey cheap-ass, you only care about price and nothing else so you bought Basic Economy.” Now it’s just “Basic Economy” front and center.

I suppose we’ll be able to judge the success of this by how long it takes for the boarding process to be tweaked again. It never stays the same for too long, and Delta seems interested in changing more frequently than most. I guess that’s what happens when things are going well and you run out of more productive ways to spend your time.

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