Airlines need to get priority boarding right

by John Walton
December 04, 2019
Photo: John Walton

With the news that Qantas is revamping its priority boarding to give premium customers greater priority, it’s perhaps a useful time to think more widely about how to make this option a real perk for premium cabin passengers and highly valuable frequent flyers.

This is particularly the case as airlines continue to segment their cabins with extra-legroom economy, premium economy and basic economy options that all come with their own set of benefits.

It’s a fact of life that many passengers still like to board early, even regular travellers who one might imagine would have little to no desire to sit on a plane for any amount of time more than they need to.

READ our list of best airlines for 2020

Whether that’s to secure space in the overhead bin closest to them, to enjoy a pre-departure beverage, to ensure their jackets are hung up neatly, to get a bit of work done before pushback or simply to relax before takeoff, priority boarding is a benefit of either buying a more expensive ticket or for loyalty to an airline — and people buying the more expensive tickets and more loyal customers like (and frankly deserve) to get what they pay for.

The fundamental problem set is that there are usually only two queues, that there are now too many passengers in the “priority” queue — and that not all of those passengers are equally valuable to the airline.

Priotity boarding airlines
If everyone is priority, nobody is priority. Photo: John Walton

When you have a passenger in business class standing next to a high-tier frequent flyer who spends many tens of thousands of dollars with an airline every year, that’s one thing.

But when it’s business class, plus premium economy, plus extra-legroom economy, plus anyone more than just an entry-level of the frequent flyer program, all lumped in together in the “priority” zone, that’s a problem.

It’s often particularly problematic at outstation airports, whose contracted staff are not employed directly by the airline, are often poorly managed, and aren’t incentivized in any way to deliver a positive passenger experience for premium passengers.

But how to fix this problem? Lots of airlines have tried, whether that’s the US carriers with the relatively inelegant multiple tensabarrier corrals of boarding gates, the Japanese carriers with the boarding gates featuring staffers walking around holding laminated sheets confirming which group is boarding, or other options entirely.

For a start, airlines need to figure out how much space they have to play with. This may well vary based on the airport: at their home hub, they are likely to have more control over the overall experience, more staff who can assist, and a closer relationship with the airport.

The Emirates premium experience at Dubai, for example, is excellent but of course unique to the bi-level boarding process.

Airlines need to figure out how many different groups they need.

At a minimum, I think this is probably at least one for each class of service, with associated frequent flyer levels: platinum members board with first class, gold with business, silver with premium economy, and bronze with extra-legroom economy, for example.

I keep coming back to the necessity of policing — or at the very least signposting — the end of the queue as well.

Too often it’s too easy for passengers without priority boarding to simply join a queue to which they’re not entitled, shrug when they get to the end and end up being boarded anyway because it’s too much of a hassle to send them to the back of the line.

I’m struck that, with automatic boarding gates, this should not be an insurmountable problem — if the gates are located in the right place.

Are automated boarding gates being placed in the right spot? Photo: SITA

Rather than having them at the end of the boarding queue, they should be in the beginning, allowing passengers to verify their eligibility for the queue and then entering into a segregated second queue.

This is, in essence, how easyJet works its Speedy Boarding process, and it is very effective.

Combined with this option could be the A/B queuing model: passengers for boarding group 1 line up in row A, and group 2 in row B. Group 3 enters row A after group 1 has completed boarding, and so on down the list.

A fundamental rethink likely requires a more thoughtful design of airports: something like, for example, what Singapore Changi does with gate-based security, except with boarding zones.

But there is much that airlines can think about in the meantime — and thinking is indeed needed.