To airline managers, an airplane sitting on the ground is a horror: an expensive asset failing to justify its expense. The goal is full utilization, which means keeping planes airborne as many hours as possible, with as many passengers on board as possible.
One key to maximizing utilization is timely turn-arounds, which require quick, orderly boarding. That would seem to be among an airline’s easiest tasks. Yet after more than a century of commercial air travel, there’s still no consensus on the best way to quickly fill a plane with passengers.
Some airlines board passengers by row; others board by cabin; and still others use a hybrid scheme that combines considerations of row and cabin and other factors.
While there’s no consistency among different airlines, travelers can at least expect consistency from flight to flight when flying the same carrier. Until, that is, the airline changes schemes.
That’s just what JetBlue did recently, replacing its row-by-row boarding with a new group-based approach, which boards passengers in the following order:
- Pre-boarding for disabled passengers
- Mosaic elite and Mint passengers
- Even More Space passengers (Group A)
- Active military and passengers with children in strollers or car seats
- Group B
- Group C
- Group D
- Group E
- Everyone else
Naturally, JetBlue paints a rosy picture of the new process, touting its supposed benefits to passengers. In response to a request for more information regarding the reasons for the change and its effects, a JetBlue representative claimed the new procedure was designed to “reduce congestion on the jet bridge and in the aisles—and get customers on their way faster than ever.” As for its effects, “While the process is still new, we have been quite pleased with the results. Many customers and crewmembers have remarked on the ease and speed of boarding.”
Is it really any faster than the old way? JetBlue customers commenting on FlyerTalk, a discussion board for frequent flyers, gave the new scheme mixed reviews.
According to one commenter:
I was on BOS -> ORD round trip yesterday morning/night, maybe it was just a predominantly business crowd, but it seemed really quick and easy boarding each way.
But another’s experience was less positive:
I can’t accurately say if there was a change in boarding time, as this was my first A321 flight, but both boardings (particularly outbound from BOS) seemed to take forever. Flight back wasn’t full, so that helped, but boarding was pretty slow, and gate agents seemed to be allowing long pauses between boarding groups (presumably to let the aisle clear out).
And there was at least one conspiracy theorist, who divined ulterior motives in the switch:
This won’t affect me but I would like to know the impetus for the switch. Seems needless unless they are going to upsell the boarding groups to nickel and dime people.
Indeed, for what’s being characterized as a customer benefit, the airline has been notably mum on the subject. Aside from an email to JetBlue’s elite Mosaic members, there has been suspiciously little communication about the change. No news release. No social media buzz. Nothing.
As a result, many JetBlue travelers have been taken by surprise when faced with the new boarding rules. Whether it’s ultimately deemed a pleasant surprise or not remains to be seen.
Reader Reality Check
Upgrade or downgrade: What’s your assessment of JetBlue’s new boarding process?
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.