Delta Is Making Some Changes to Its Boarding Process

Starting May 1, Delta Air Lines will have a new numbered system for boarding. Here’s how it will work.

A person with a backpack standing in the aisle of a otherwise passenger-free Delta airplane

Time to know which zone you’re in.

Photo by Cassiohabib/Shutterstock

If there’s anything that sparks spirited debate among airline passengers, it’s the flight boarding process. No matter what system the airlines develop, the process always feels like a struggle, and some passengers are invariably left disgruntled. Airlines must balance the often-conflicting goals of loading a plane quickly and efficiently with rewarding passengers who purchase high-fare tickets or have airline status that includes an early boarding perk. Given airlines’ constantly increasing fees for checked bags, the passenger battle over early boarding in order to snag coveted carry-on space is likely to only get worse.

Enter: the latest attempt at rethinking the way passengers board. Delta this month introduced an update to its boarding process with a new numbered system, launching May 1. This new system replaces Delta’s eight-tiered Branded Boarding process with an eight-tiered Zone Boarding process. Delta’s Zone Boarding system will be similar to that used by most other airlines, including United and American, while differing from outlier Southwest Airlines with their love-it-or-hate-it three-tiered open seating system. United modified its zoned boarding process last October with separate zones loading sequentially for window, middle, and aisle seats (but only for regular-fare, non elite-status passengers) in the hope that it will speed the process.

What does Delta’s change mean for you, the passenger? Almost nothing. Delta’s old-to-new conversion chart shows that each of the previously used branded boarding zones translates directly into the new numbered system. So, the same passengers with a given ticket fare or frequent flier status will board in the same order in May as they did in April. For example, first-class and Delta One passengers will still board first, only now with “Zone One” printed on their tickets, while basic economy passengers will still board last, in Zone Eight.

Delta's conversion chart shows how the new boarding zones translate from Delta's previous boarding system.

Delta’s conversion chart shows how the new boarding zones translate from Delta’s previous boarding system.

Courtesy of Delta

So why is Delta going through the hassle of rebranding its boarding zones if nothing is really changing?

The new Zone Boarding process is expected to “provide customers more clarity into the boarding sequence and make the boarding process more intuitive—especially for infrequent travelers and/or customers who might face a language barrier at the gate,” Delta said in a statement to AFAR.

In essence, Delta is acknowledging that it is a whole lot easier for everyone to understand that Zone Four boards fourth, rather than trying to remember that Sky Priority boards between Delta Comfort and Main Cabin One. This is in stark contrast to Delta’s 2018 Branded Boarding launch, which boasted that “Zone boarding, an aviation standard for decades, will soon be a thing of the past.”

Delta’s reintroduced Zone Boarding system “will also align more closely with our joint venture and international partners,” the airline said in its statement, “providing international customers a more simplified, consistent experience,” particularly when traveling using different aircraft and code share partners during a multi-stop itinerary.  

The change in the boarding system even merited mention in Delta’s most recent quarterly earnings call. CEO Ed Bastian touted the reintroduced Zone Boarding, saying, “When you have a number and you’re standing in line, we are all trained to know when it’s our turn.”

But while Delta’s naming conventions are simpler, expect the same boarding issues (or rewards for first-class passengers) to continue going forward with Delta and most other airlines.

While airline enthusiasts and operations analysts may dream of the day of innovative new systems being introduced, like strict WilMA (Window-Middle-Aisle) passenger loading , or the Steffen method of alternate-row back-to-front passenger entry, change may be slow to come. Ultimately, the airlines don’t want to give up the billions of dollars they are making from checked luggage fees, and passengers don’t want to give up their status benefit of priority boarding to claim valuable carry-on luggage space. So, expect a continued carousel of cosmetic changes like Delta’s numbering system for the time being.

Bill Fink is a freelance travel writer for outlets including AARP, BBC Travel, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Outside, SF Chronicle, and Yahoo Travel. Among many writing awards, Bill won Lowell Thomas Golds for Investigative Journalism and Newspaper Travel, and his stories have been included in The Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing, Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing, and The Best American Travel Writing.
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