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After 12,000 test runs, United takes on gate overcrowding with new boarding process

Fuller flights are a boon to airlines but overcrowding at gates has become an unwelcome side effect.

United Airlines says its customers have complained about clusters of travelers around its gates. Travelers spilled into corridors and arriving passengers who just stepped off a flight were met with hordes of departing travelers.

“It’s too congested,” said Maria Walter, United Airlines‘ managing director for the company’s global operations strategy. “It created a lot of angst from our customers.”

The airline on Tuesday debuted a new boarding process to take on the problem, and make sure flights depart on time as more travelers than ever opt to fly.

United reduced the boarding lines to two from five, and is urging travelers to wait until their boarding group — numbered 1 through 5 — is called. United carried close to 155 million passengers in the 12 months ended in August, up 6.1 percent from the year-earlier period, the company said last week.

Travelers would sometimes queue up an hour before a flight, Walter said, which would attract even more passengers to the line. “It’s like a magnet,” she said.

United’s new system brings it more in line with American Airlines‘ process. Southwest Airlines does not assign seats ahead of time but sorts passengers into groups based on when they’ve checked in or by their loyalty status level.

United tested different boarding processes on 12,000 flights around the world over the past year. It tweaked some of the boarding group members, adding its top-tier customers to the pre-boarding group along with active military and passengers with disabilities. Premiere Gold members will be bumped up to Group 1, because Group 2, which includes co-branded United credit card holders, “has gotten a little bit large,” said Walter.

Even as travelers jostle for precious overhead bin space, some passengers like the new method.

Before her 9:40 a.m. flight from United’s hub at Newark Liberty International Airport to Portland, Oregon, Cathy York was seated, waiting for boarding group 3 to be called, instead of queuing.

“We’re all going in the same direction,” she said.

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