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United Airlines Adopts “WILMA” Boarding Order

United Airlines is taking a step back to the past in an effort to streamline their boarding process. Starting on October 26, 2023, they will be reintroducing a previously-trialed boarding system known as “WILMA.” Now, you might be wondering what WILMA stands for, and trust me, you’re not the only one scratching your head over this acronym. It stands for Window, Middle, and Aisle, though the origin of that “L” remains somewhat unclear.

Why the switch? Well, United Airlines has noticed that it takes them an average of two minutes longer to board a flight now compared to 2019. You might think that two minutes isn’t much, but when multiplied across their entire network, that time can quickly add up. Oddly, this lag in boarding time has happened at a time when United has been expanding its basic economy fare class, which, notably, doesn’t include a carry-on bag.

Why could this be? With business travel still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels, leisure travelers and families, who might not be as accustomed to the boarding process, now make up a significant chunk of their passenger roster, slowing down boarding.

So, United is making a change, but what exactly does this mean for travelers? In a nutshell, the idea is to seat passengers in the window, middle, and aisle seats in that order. Starting with Group 3, the new system is as follows:

  • Preboarding remains the same and includes customers with disabilities, unaccompanied minors, active military members, Global Services members, travelers with children 2 years and younger, and Premier 1K members.
  • Group 1 continues to include Premier Platinum and Gold members, Star Alliance Gold members, and travelers in United Polaris, United First, and United Business cabins.
  • Group 2 still consists of Premier Silver members, Star Alliance Silver members, travelers with Premier Access or priority boarding, and select cobranded credit card holders.
  • Group 3 encompasses window seats, exit row seats, and non-revenue travelers.
  • Group 4 is for the middle seats.
  • Group 5 is for passengers in aisle seats.
  • Group 6 is for basic economy customers, though it’s important to note that for long-haul flights and select Central American routes, there won’t be a Group 6. This exception is due to United allowing carry-on bags for passengers with intercontinental basic economy tickets.

At first glance, it might seem like a lot of groups, but keep in mind that United’s competitors like American Airlines and Delta both have a whopping 10 boarding groups, making United’s seven seem relatively tame. United also has one of the most punitive Basic Economy products in the business, placing even their MileagePlus elite members in Group 6 when flying on a Basic Economy ticket; on competing airlines, many of the restrictions of BE fares can be defeated with elite status or the right credit card.

In my opinion, if an airline really wants to speed the boarding process, the current fee structure of charging most passengers to check a bag should be flipped. Carry-on bags slow the boarding process immensely, especially towards the end of the process as overhead bins fill, and people have to get creative as to where to stow their bags. This slowdown plays out in reverse upon landing, creating frustrating delays in getting off the aircraft. Road warriors and business travelers recognize the huge time suck involved in checking a bag, and I imagine most would be willing to pay a premium for the ability to bring a full-size carry-on. As an AA elite, I’m entitled to free checked bags, yet I rarely utilize this benefit based on the inconvenience factor alone. United seems to recognize this reality, as they already require Basic Economy passengers to check their bags (and pay for the privilege). Perhaps airlines should consider a fee structure charging non-elites to bring a full-size carry-on into the cabin, and incentivize more passengers to check their bags by making those free of charge.

Ultimately, the airline industry is fiercely competitive, and with razor-thin margins, carriers are constantly seeking ways to shave precious minutes off their boarding times. There are countless academic studies all centered around shaving minutes and seconds off the boarding process. For airlines like Southwest, their open-seating policy allows for fast boarding, as passengers can just sit down wherever they see a seat and space for their carryon; this is especially crucial as their business model has long relied on quick turns. United’s reversion to the “WILMA” system might be just the ticket to streamline the process and get passengers on board a bit faster, even if we’re still pondering the mysterious “L” in the acronym.