The tarmac at Queen Alia International Airport

Boarding Groups and the War on Class Solidarity

Airlines force you to choose between checking your baggage and betraying your fellow man.

Typically, the holiday season is the busiest time of the year for airlines. Anyone who has tried to book a flight in late December or early January is familiar with fares double their normal price, security lines that stretch on for an hour, and overbooked cabins. And while AAA forecasted that, due to the pandemic, holiday travel in the United States will have decreased by 34 million people or 29 percent, airline travel was on my mind as the calendar changed from 2020 to 2021. 

I am far from any sort of loyalty status with an airline, but between attending college four states away from my home, studying for a semester on another continent, and moving for work from New York to California, I have taken a fair number of flights in my life. Those flights have also resulted in hundreds of hours spent sitting in airports, listening to looped warnings against unattended baggage and watching CNBC, a station whose entire ratings are made up of televisions left on in airports. 

The layovers and delays also gave me time to think, and, after much deliberation, I have decided on which part of the airline travel process is the worst. It’s not the full-body pat-down from a grizzled security worker, it’s not having your shampoo confiscated, it’s not even paying $13 for a BLT wrap in the concourse. The worst part of flying is boarding the damn plane.

Boarding an airplane is infinitely more stressful than it has any right to be. After arriving at the airport on time, navigating through TSA, and finding the proper gate, an airline passenger should be able to relax. They’ve made it! Instead, airlines have conspired to confound innocent travelers, succeeding in establishing “boarding a plane” as another battleground in the war on class solidarity in America.

The tarmac at Queen Alia International Airport
Plane watching at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan

To better explain what I am talking about, I have to backup a few steps.

First, a crash course in what class solidarity means. The brilliant Kim Kelly, writing for Teen Vogue defines the term best:

[Class solidarity] is the tendency for people of a certain economic or social class to feel affinity for and share interests and political goals with members of their own class. Class solidarity is the glue that holds segments of society together, and can be a powerful tool for organizing and defending our communities.

Kim Kelly for Teen Vogue

Class solidarity in this nation is most often expressed by the wealthy. For example, people were confused to see Ellen DeGeneres defend her friendship with George W. Bush, who, as president, said he defined marriage as “the union of a woman and a man”. That friendship is simply class solidarity between two very powerful people. When the 116th Congress, where the majority of members are millionaires, excluded dependent college students from the CARES Act stimulus but included a provision that uncapped the restriction on how much interest companies could deduct from their tax returns, that was class solidarity amongst the rich.

But class solidarity isn’t limited to grand public gestures from the powerful and famous. Emailing your representative to demand support for LBGTQ+ rights is class solidarity. Signing a petition for your state or county to raise the minimum wage is class solidarity. But paying extra to board an airplane early? That is antithetical to the idea of class solidarity. It amounts to paying extra to pretend you are a premium fare traveler, slowing down the boarding process for all and preventing fellow Economy fare passengers from achieving the critical mass of angry passengers necessary to convince the airlines to fundamentally improve their boarding process.

For those who haven’t flown commercially in the last few years, boarding groups are no longer split in two between first class and the rest of the plane. As an example, let’s look at the boarding groups offered by United Airlines, the airlines I am most familiar with thanks to their presence at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. 

United Airlines explains the difference between its five boarding groups
I count 15 total tiers of boarding access. Screenshot credit United Airlines.

The first thing that jumps out to me is the absurdity of referring to the first subset of travelers as “Pre-boarding”. How does this make any sense? These passengers are boarding the plane first, not stowing their luggage then getting off again to hangout with the rest of the passengers. Technicalities aside, the first people to get on a United Airlines flight are mostly who you would expect. Families with small children, customers with disabilities, and active duty members of the military likely need and will make use of all of the extra time they can get before everyone else joins them on board. 

United Global Services and Premier 1k status is awarded to people who have probably spent more time on United flights in their lives than I have in a car, so it makes sense that the airline would grant them a special privilege. Similar observations can be made about Group 1, which also consists of slightly-less-frequent fliers.

Group 2 is where the first bit of ugliness arises. Pay special attention to that second bullet, which informs you that customers who have purchased Premier Access or Priority Boarding will board ahead of their fellow everyday person. United says Premier Access and Priority Boarding are both available starting at $15. I went through the motions of booking a flight from Sacramento to Chicago on United on January 20th, and Priority Boarding was offered at $34, or $17 per flight. I was not offered the ability to purchase Premier Access

A sample United Airlines itinerary showing pre-boarding cosing $34
I created this itinerary on United’s website using real flight options.

Already we are offered the ability to abandon our fellow non-status traveler for less than the cost of an Xbox game. On top of which, United further divides the basic ticket into groups 3, 4, and 5 as Economy Plus, United Economy, and Basic Economy respectively. What is the difference between the three types of economy tickets? I’ve been reading through their website for an hour during my research for this piece and I could hardly tell you the difference. Basic Economy is the most restrictive in that you cannot pick your seat and have to pay change fees if you need to rearrange your plans. It appears that Economy Plus gives you extra legroom, leaving United Economy as the actual regular ticket.

Despite the minor differences in what each fare gets you, United is happy to strictly divide each Economy class into separate boarding groups, unless you pay to board with the higher paying passengers. Anyone who buys an Economy ticket is seeking the same thing – to travel from Point A to Point B at the cheapest price possible. Anyone who books a business or first class fare is either traveling on their company’s dime or can afford to make that journey from Point A to Point B as pleasurable as possible.

In a better world, these would be the only two boarding groups, the premium fares and the rest of the plane. In a truly just world, there would be no divide at all, but I will keep my aspirations semi-reasonable for the sake of this argument. The airlines with their boarding groups serve as a microcosm of the rest of this nation. Companies are happy to charge regular people for the privilege of superficially differentiating themselves from people just like them, artificially dividing all who would otherwise unite in a common struggle. 

But does this actually matter? Beyond freshman-dorm level griping about an egalitarian society, does it really make a difference to anyone else if someone is willing to waste $40 to sit on an airplane for an extra 10 minutes?

It does. Because the haphazard grouping process that most American airlines use is wasting everyone’s time. A 2008 paper from astrophysicist Jason Steffen proved mathematically that the boarding process airlines use is incredibly wasteful. There are a variety of better methods outlined by Steffen in his paper, which are represented visually in a brilliant YouTube video from the channel CGP Grey. 

But since everyone has been duped into chasing status and paying for privilege, on airlines as in everywhere else, there is no united front of Economy fare travelers calling for change. The premium fare passengers already enjoy extensive benefits and have no reason to want the boarding process to improve. The airlines themselves glean extra profits from every Economy passenger who is willing to break from their class and pay extra to pretend to be traveling in premium class.

Therefore, it falls to those of us seated in the back next to the restroom, subsisting on the free pretzels, and suffering through a four-hour layover in Cleveland, to stand together as Economy passengers. Stop paying for boarding group upgrades. Get the attention of the airlines, convince them to improve the boarding process, and earn us all 25 minutes of our lives back every time we take a flight.

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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