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United Implements Innovative Window-First Boarding to Speed Up Travel

The new policy being launched next week will mean those with window seats will board before those with aisle and middle seats in a bid to reduce boarding times and delays

by Lauren Smith

October 18, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of United Airlines

Starting later this month, United Airlines will implement new boarding policies to speed up the process of loading planes. Passengers holding tickets for window seats will be allowed to board before those in the middle or on the aisle.

United trialed the new boarding method, known as WILMA (a rough acronym for window, middle, and aisle), at five unnamed airports, including one of its domestic hubs, and found that it could trim as much as two minutes from the boarding time of each flight.

Photo: Courtesy of United Airlines

The change will also reduce discomfort for travelers, now often required to climb over or shimmy past already-seated passengers to access window or middle seats.

From October 26, travelers in window seats in the economy cabin on domestic and international flights will be assigned to boarding group 3, along with travelers in exit row seats. Passengers seated in the middle will board in group 4, followed by those with aisle seats in group 5.

The process will also accommodate travelers flying together. Customers on the same reservation, such as families and couples, will be assigned to the same and highest boarding group.

The change doesn’t apply to travelers with basic economy tickets, United’s most stripped-back fare, who will board in a newly-established group 6.

Photo: Courtesy of United

The changes also don’t apply to those with pre-boarding privileges, including travelers with disabilities, families with children under two, unaccompanied minors, and active military members.

First and business class passengers and those with elite status or who have purchased priority boarding will also board ahead of economy ticketholders in groups 1 to 3.

Revisiting WILMA

United previously trialed the WILMA boarding system in 2017, with five boarding groups instead of seven, but at some point reverted to a standard front-to-back system. The airline said new technology has enabled it to relaunch WILMA boarding and expand the number of boarding groups.

“We’re excited to bring WILMA back to provide a smoother boarding process flow that helps get passengers in their seats even faster and saves precious time during our boarding process,” said Christine Salamone, a spokesperson for the airline.

Airlines have seen boarding times climb since travel resumed following pandemic lockdowns, with United reporting its boarding times are up by two minutes since 2019.

Photo: United, Boeing 777-200ER. Courtesy of Munich Airport

Industry experts have attributed the increase to the decline of business travel and a travel boom bringing less-experienced passengers into cabins. They say that passengers who take fewer flights are more likely to take extra time to stow their carry-ons and settle in their seats.

Shaving a few minutes off boarding times and getting planes off the tarmac quickly could mean fewer delays and missed connections for travelers and financial savings for carriers. If all aircraft get off the ground more quickly, even just two minutes faster, the airline could add additional flights to its schedule.

United isn’t the only airline tweaking its boarding procedures to cut turnaround times. Southwest Airlines, which uses a unique boarding system in which passengers board by group but can select their seat within their cabin, recently reduced the number of Early Bird check-in slots passengers can purchase to reserve seats to turn planes around even quicker.