How Airlines Make Their Boarding Groups (And How To Ensure You're In The Best One)

Traveling seems to happen in segments. Segment one is getting to the airport. Segment two is dealing with parking, check-in, and security. At some point, we also think it's best to print your boarding pass, and finally you arrive at the gate and wait until it's time to board. You scan your boarding pass and see your FQTV number, flight details, boarding time and boarding group — only to find the waiting continues because you're several groups down the list. What gives? Why are some customers first in line while others bring up the back?


Although the process is a bit different for each airline, the reason behind it is the same: Potential profits. Every airline is in the business of making money. Yet, while the cost of a business-class seat might buy you a jump in the line and especially a shot at better overhead bin space, it's not a guarantee you'll be boarding first. Similarly, even if you're the very first person to check in for your flight, you could find yourself waiting for several groups ahead of you. It doesn't seem to make sense. Once you understand the system though, you're much more likely to move up a few spots.

How boarding groups are decided

While each airline's policy varies, one factor does not. The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires all domestic airlines, and foreign airlines flying to or from the United States, to abide by regulations that allow disabled passengers to board the plane first. There is one exception to the rule, which applies to flights with open seating. In this case, disabled passengers may be asked to board after a select group of passengers, but still before general boarding begins.


Most airlines also acknowledge current or previous enlisted personnel, unaccompanied minors, passengers traveling with children, and special premiere members by allowing them to board early. These passengers board during what is known as "pre-boarding," and often won't be part of the boarding group numbers. From there, airlines choose boarding groups in a way that highlights the perks of higher cost tickets or airline status. The first groups often include first-class and business-class passengers, as well as travelers who have earned elite status from previous travels or by being a card holder. From there, the pattern continues with boarding preference given to the next levels of status and seat cabin.


Tip: On airlines with an open seating policy, like Southwest, you can buy priority boarding for an additional fee. If you don't want to cough up the extra dough, check in for your flight the instant check-in opens 24 hours before your flight. Even a minute's delay will likely set you back into the next boarding group.

How to improve your boarding group

There are a few ways you can reposition your place in line. For most airlines, you can land yourself a higher ranking by opening a co-branded credit card. These are the cards that have the airline's name, but are backed by a financial institution, such as Chase or Capital One. Every card comes with different perks and varying fees, but for the most part, having a card will keep you out of the last boarding group.


Also join the airline's loyalty program. These are free to sign up for, but you'll need to repeat the process with each airline you fly. Simply being a member will put you higher in the rankings for some airlines. For example, Delta Members will be assigned boarding zone six, while non-members will land in zone seven.

You'll also move closer to the front of the line as you move closer to the front of the plane. On both Delta and American, main cabin economy seats get priority boarding over basic economy seats. However, on United, the location of your seat within the row affects your boarding group. For instance, Group 3 accommodates travelers in the exit rows or those seated in window seats. Group 4 is for passengers in the middle row, and aisle seats board in group 5. Then again, you might find yourself in a better seat, and related boarding group, if you don't check in early.