What Delta’s New Boarding Zones Mean

Once again, Delta has announced a change to the way it will board planes and, as usual, the new process will be more complicated than the old one. The meaning is simple. Delta is giving up any pretense that it is trying to find the most efficient way to board a plane. Rather, your boarding spot, like your seat, will ultimately become a function of what you pay.*

The New Boarding Process

delta, boarding zone

The new boarding pattern. Ooh, I hope I’m in “violet transitioning to amethyst!”

Delta’s new boarding scheme moves from six zones to eight and is based on “ticket type and color (Presumably, CNN means the color of the zone and not the passenger).” As they put it:

“Zone boarding, an aviation standard for decades, will soon be a thing of the past for Delta customers as the airline makes a global shift to boarding by branded fare purchased. This is the latest evolution in Delta’s multi-year work to bring consistency, simplicity and clarity to the gate and boarding experience, efforts that have driven all-time high customer experience scores. SkyMiles Medallion Members and eligible Delta SkyMiles American Express Credit Card Members will continue to receive priority boarding.”

The new method prioritizes how much you paid for your ticket. True, Diamond Medallion members (those who have earned 125,000 qualifying miles and spent $15,000 in the previous or current calendar year) will still get to board in the first zone, regardless of what they paid. But Platinum (75,000/$9,000) and Gold (50,000/$6,000) will slip from second to fourth, putting them in the position of possibly having to fight for overhead space.** Instead, they’ll be overtaken by people who booked Comfort+ or Premium Select. After that, the rest of the world boards in the same order as it had before.

So, Why?

No preboarding for you!

So why would an airline make a new, more complicated boarding process? Generally, any time that question is asked in the airline industry, the answer is, “because they can.” Priority boarding is simply another product for them to sell. Loyalty, particularly at the mid-tier levels? Now, it’s a matter of “what have you done for me lately?”

Delta is a privately held, profit seeking entity. It has every right to decide who gets to board when, and how much they should pay for it. I have no argument with the fact that they did so. And despite the way that Delta has been chipping away at elite benefits, I would argue that it still has one of the stronger programs. And clearly, Diamond status is the most valuable top-tier status in the  industry.

Where the problem occurs, however, is when every individual transaction becomes just that: a purchase made in isolation. Knocking off one, or even a few, benefits might not make a difference. And let’s not forget that the reason that boarding has become such a disaster is because airlines decided to start charging to check bags. Again, a “one-off” fee. But take all of these one-offs in isolation and you will eventually create an airline where loyalty only goes as far as your credit card bill, and you might decide that a low-cost carrier suits all your needs. I fly a lot of JetBlue, and they treat their elite members like gold. And like Southwest, you can use your points for any flight at any time. SkyMiles have become increasingly worthless over time. I’d hate for the elite benefits to go away, as well.

A casual dining restaurant executive once told me that the dirty little secret is that whenever they want to take a price increase, they just raise the price of soda. The problem, he said, was that when you raised it too much, you hit a tipping point, where customers just switched to water, and you lose $2 of pure profit. And then, they realize that they’re just fine with water and don’t go back. I don’t think that we’re at that point with the airlines, but it will come eventually. And, as is the case with restaurants, they won’t know until it’s too late.


*Boarding as a product is not necessarily a new concept but, in the past, Delta has at least had the good sense to pretend that boarding was supposed to be an efficient process. No longer.

**Beginner’s Hint: If you have a qualifying Delta credit card, you will get a waiver for the ticket spending requirement if you spend $25,000 or more in a calendar year. What Diamond? That’ll run you $250,000 in spending on your card(s) to earn the waiver. It’s also unlikely that Platinum members will have to worry about overhead space, given their immediate upgrades to Comfort+ seats.


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