The way Delta decides which way you board reveals a huge problem in the airline industry

  • Most airlines boarding processes are complicated because of the number of customer categories and ticket classes.
  • When airlines experiment with new boarding strategies, they only address part of the problem by focusing on boarding lanes and reorganized boarding groups.
  • Outside of passengers who need assistance or active US military personnel, Delta Air Lines alone has 27 different categories it uses to separate passengers into seven different boarding groups. 


As airlines create new ticket classes and reward programs, it can be hard to decipher the distinctions between boarding classes. Looking at an airline's website reveals how complicated the boarding process has become.

Airlines like American, Delta, and United have experimented with new boarding strategies designed to make the process more efficient by focusing on boarding lanes and reorganized boarding groups, but that's only part of the problem. No amount of reorganization can change the fact that airlines are creating too many ways to divide their customers.

9 best airlines in America:

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9 best airlines in America

9. Hawaiian Airlines

Previous rank: 8

Why it's here: Hawaiian finished last on the TPG list. The Honolulu-based airline's premium ticket prices and Hawaii-centric route network fell victim to TPG new metrics which increased focus on airfare and network size.

8. JetBlue

Previous rank: 4

Why it's here: JetBlue suffered the most significant drop in this year's rankings. The New York-based airline struggled with on-time arrivals, baggage and change fees as well as customer satisfaction. JetBlue's position as a boutique carrier hurts it rankings with respect to the size of its route network as well as the lavishness of its frequent flyer program.

7. Spirit Airlines

Previous rank: 10

Why it's here: Spirit jumped three spots in the rankings due to its improvement in areas such as the number of lost baggage while also benefiting from the missteps of its rivals and the merger of Alaska and Virgin America.

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6. American

Previous rank: 5

Why it's here: American Airlines didn't make many moves apart from a one spot from after the Virgin/Alaska merger. The airline struggled with on-time arrivals, fees, lost baggage, and customer satisfaction.

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5. Frontier Airlines

Previous rank: 9

Why it's here: Frontier Airlines made a surprising jump up the rankings. The ultra-low-cost carrier benefitted from its route expansion and its improvement in baggage handling.

4. United Airlines

Previous rank: 2

Why it's here: United Airlines rocky 2017 caused it to fall two spots, but not for the reasons you'd expect. United saw marked improvement in operational effectiveness with the number customer complaints down 17% while also decreasing the number of people involuntarily bumped from flights. However, the airline couldn't keep up with its rivals in areas such as airfare and the quality of its airport lounges.

3. Delta Air Lines

Previous rank: 7

Why it's here: Delta made big strides in airfare, the involuntary bumps, and its frequent flyer program while maintaining its high rankings in on-time performance, lost baggage, and the size of its route network.

2. Southwest Airlines

Previous rank: 6

Why it's here: Southwest improved four spots over the past year thanks to lower airfare and the expansion of its sizable route network. The airline's stellar customer satisfaction score and its free checked baggage policy also helped.

1. Alaska Airlines

Previous rank: 1

Why it's here: Alaska Airlines maintained its top spot by scoring in the top three in several key criteria including airfare, on-time arrivals, customer satisfaction, baggage handling, and its frequent flyer program.

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Outside of passengers who may need special assistance or active US military personnel, United has 19 categories it uses to separate passengers into different boarding groups, American has 22, and Delta beats them both with 27 different categories. 

These are the categories Delta uses to separate passengers into different boarding groups and what they mean, starting with the passengers who get to board first:

Premium Boarding Zone

-Delta One passengers: Delta's business class, which is available on some long-haul international flights and gives passengers private booths and seats that become beds when reclined.

-First Class passengers: Delta’s traditional first-class seating on domestic and some international flights.

-Diamond Medallion members: Customers can achieve diamond status by receiving at least 125,000 “medallion qualification miles” (which are based on how many miles you fly and how much you spend on each ticket), taking at least 140 flights, and spending at least $15,000 on Delta flights.

Sky Priority Boarding Zone

-Platinum Medallion members: Customers can achieve platinum status by receiving at least 75,000 medallion qualification miles, taking at least 100 flights, and spending at least $9,000 on Delta flights.

-Gold Medallion members: Customers can achieve gold status by receiving at least 50,000 medallion qualification miles, taking at least 60 flights, and spending at least $6,000 on Delta flights.

-Delta Comfort+ passengers: A seating option that’s available on domestic and international flights and offers more legroom and perks than a seat in the main cabin but less than in first class.

-Flying Blue Platinum members: Flying Blue is a travel rewards program that allows members to earn points by flying on partner airlines like Delta, Alaska Airlines, and Air France. Platinum members need to earn at least 70,000 “level miles” (which are determined by how many miles you fly, how much you spend on each ticket, and your membership level) or taking at least 60 qualifying flights.

-Flying Blue Gold members: Members can achieve gold status by earning at least 40,000 level miles or taking at least 60 qualifying flights.

-Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Gold members: Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a rewards program for Virgin Atlantic Airlines. Gold members need to earn at least 1,000 “tier points” (which are determined by how many miles you fly, how much you spend on each ticket, and your membership level) every 12-13 months.

-Virgin Australia Velocity Platinum members: Velocity is Virgin Australia Airline’s rewards program. Platinum members need to earn at least 1,000 points (which are based on how much money you spend and your membership level on domestic flights, as well as how many miles you fly on international flights) and take eight qualifying flights, then earn at least 800 points and take eight qualifying flights every 12 months.

-Virgin Australia Velocity Gold members: Gold members need to earn at least 500 points and take four qualifying flights, then earn at least 400 points and take four qualifying flights every 12 months.

-GOL Smiles Diamond members: Smiles is the rewards program for the Brazilian airline GOL Airlines. Diamond members have to earn and maintain 35,000 “club miles” (which are based on the number of miles you fly) every 12 months.

-SkyTeam Elite Plus members: SkyTeam is a travel rewards program that partners with a number of airlines, including Delta, and whose membership levels are tied to each airline’s rewards program. Delta Diamond, Platinum, or Gold Medallion members qualify for SkyTeam Elite Plus status.

Zone 1

-Silver Medallion members: Customers can achieve silver status by receiving at least 25,000 medallion qualification miles, taking at least 30 flights, and spending at least $3,000 on Delta flights.

-Delta Corporate passengers: "Corporate passengers" are customers who work for companies that have corporate partnerships with Delta.

-Priority Boarding Trip Extra passengers: Customers who pay an extra $15 on top of their ticket can board in Zone 1.

-Reserve Delta SkyMiles Credit Card members: The Delta Reserve credit card has an annual fee of $450 and the most generous benefits of any Delta credit card.

-Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card members: The Delta Platinum credit card has an annual fee of $195

-Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card members: The Delta Gold credit card has an annual fee of $95

-Flying Blue Silver members: Members can achieve silver status by earning at least 25,000 level miles or taking at least 15 qualifying flights.

-Virgin Australia Velocity Silver members: Silver members need to earn at least 250 points and take two qualifying flights, then earn at least 200 points and take two qualifying flights every 12 months.

-GOL Smiles Gold members: Gold members have to earn and maintain 20,000 club miles every 12 months.

-SkyTeam Elite members: Delta Silver Medallion members qualify for SkyTeam Elite status.

-Crossover Rewards SPG Platinum members: SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) is Starwood Hotels’ rewards program. To achieve platinum status, Starwood customers need to accumulate 25 eligible stays at one of the brand’s hotels or stay for 50 eligible nights each year

Zone 2

-Main Cabin passengers: Main cabin seats are available on domestic and international flights and offer less legroom and fewer perks than Comfort+, but unlike an economy ticket, main cabin passengers can choose their seat before they check in for their flight

Zone 3

-Main Cabin passengers booked in T, X, and V fares: The T, X, and V fare classes refer to discounted main cabin tickets.

Zone 4

-Basic Economy passengers: Basic Economy fares are Delta’s least expensive tickets. They’re available on domestic and international flights and are almost identical to Main Cabin tickets, but they don’t allow customers to select a specific seat before checking in for their flight.

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SEE ALSO: Delta is changing the way you board — and some customers hate it

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