An article in The Street attacks United Airlines by comparing it to Southwest Airlines and arguing its boarding process is punitive and meant to shame customers. I find that argument wholly unpersuasive.

Is The United Airlines Boarding Process “Unpleasant” And An “Intentionally Terrible Situation?”

The premise of the story is that the Southwest Airlines boarding process is orderly, where everyone is assigned a group letter (A-C) and number (1-60) that makes it very clear when you can board, and United’s is punitive. Specifically, United boards by groups and when groups 3-5 are called, it becomes a free-for-all scramble to board as quickly as possible in order to secure limited overhead bin space.

Once you hit the later groups, however, things change. Overhead bin space runs out toward the end of the third group making it important for people looking to carry a bag on to board earlier in that group. That’s where the lack of numbers or any form of organization creates a mess.

People in the third group, and later the fourth and fifth never get asked to line up. The groups are sometimes called and at other times, know they’re supposed to board because a digital sign changes.

This creates chaos like Black Friday back when doorbuster deals were a thing. It’s a dangerous sort of chaos and it’s something United Airlines has done very intentionally.

Chaos seems like quite an overstatement to me. Indeed, if you are in groups 3-5 you do have to wait for your group number to be called, but it is clearly announced by both the gate agent and on overhead monitors. Does that cause a rush to board? Yes, it does. But Walmart Black Friday style? No, not even close.

And the author misses a key point:

The basic economy system is designed to make people who pay less for their tickets feel like they’re a lower class than people who pay more. That would be fine if it was explicit.

The airline could say that people in the fourth and fifth boarding groups can’t bring a bag that needs to go in an overhead bin but doing that would defeat the airline’s unstated goal…

The airline wants the basic experience to be bad so you’re more willing to pay up next time. It could offer low fares with fewer perks along with dignity, but it has chosen to not do that in order to maximize future revenue.

Indeed, United is attempting to penalize those who book Basic Economy tickets. But United stands apart from American Airlines and Delta Air Lines in making clear that passengers traveling in Basic Economy cannot bring a full-size carry-on bag onboard.

In reality, if there is a “bait and switch” it is American and Delta who are guilty because they make it seem like you can bring your bag on if you fly in basic economy, but in reality, the overhead bin space is often gone by the time you board. United at least lets you know that if you buy a basic ticket, you cannot bring a bag onboard. There is no surprise. The author is wrong: the airline does warn you in advance.

Another point: the United Next initiative will mean all narrow body planes have new overhead bins in which bags can be stored vertically and (presumably) all bags will fit. Once that occurs, there will be no need to hastily board any longer.


I’m not sure why the author chose to compare United to Southwest when United is very clear that Basic Economy passengers cannot take a carry-on item onboard. Is United’s boarding process ideal? No. But the idea that “United Airlines only wants people in the first two boarding groups to have a pleasant, orderly experience,” seems rather absurd.

“If you fly United on a basic economy fare without buying extras, recognize that you’re Jack, not Rose, on the Titanic. It’s a class system and while that’s legal, it’s not pleasant.”

Last I checked, United is not putting basic economy passengers on the wing…

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