Yesterday I was surprised when my Honolulu - Los Angeles flight boarded economy class passengers by row rather than by zone, starting with the back of the plane and moving forward. I assumed it was a HNL quirk and did not give it a second thought...until I arrived at the gate for my Los Angeles - Boston redeye last night and found the gate agents also boarding by row. I asked if the policy had changed and indeed, UA has now more closely aligned their boarding process with Continental.
That means military boards first (as a former member of the USAF, I have some thoughts on that I will save for another post), then first class and elites (for now 1K and Global Service members get to board in front of lower-tier elites) concurrently with families with children under four and others (like senior citizens) needing extra time to board, followed by back-front economy class boarding.
Boarding seemed to drag out on both flights yesterday and took longer than under the old zone process in which (generally) window seats were zone two, middle seats zone three, and aisle seats zone four. I have flown both Continental and United a lot over the last year and always found UA's boarding process more orderly and efficient.
The big boarding question that remains is whether Premier Executives and Premiers will have access to the red carpet (preferred boarding lane). I hope not--on a typical hub-hub flight as much as half the plane might be elite. That is no way to recognize your most valuable or frequent customers.
I trust that the policy change will illustrate that the zone method was better and we'll soon see the zone numbers back on boarding passes, but I would not count on it. Although the United name has survived, it seems United Airlines is looking more and more like Continental each day. That's not a change we like.