Why Soldiers Should Not Board First on United Airlines

It is Memorial Day today in the United States, a day in which America honors those soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of their country. What started out as Decoration Day in 1865, when freed southern blacks in Charleston, South Carolina placed ribbons and flowers at the graves of fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War, has become a day in which we reflect on the inhumanity of war while honoring the humanity of those who served and died in them.

On this somber day, it might seem strange that I would bring up United's new policy of allowing uniformed military personnel to board in front of everyone else, but I think this the perfect day to discuss why I think such a policy is a mistake.

As someone who served in the U.S. Air Force I want to make clear from the outset that I am not anti-military or a disgruntled ex-soldier. Quite the contrary, I submit that the view I hold reflects the a widely-held military mindset of humility and integrity.

Whether as an honest attempt to thank soldiers for their service or a clever marketing ruse to make the traveling public feel warm and fuzzy, United and Continental board uniformed military personnel first, even before the first class cabin or families with infants. A cursory analysis of this policy points to a simple way to honor U.S. troops, but a closer look reveals that the policy uncomfortably places soldiers (including the 90% of military personnel [like myself] who never see combat) on a pedestal, singling them out in a hollow way like when we warmly praise someone at a funeral we never really took the time to get to know.

Thank any soldier for their service and almost all will tell you they were just doing their job. And that is the correct answer. Many join the military for economic reasons. Others join for more selfless reasons while others join out of boredom. For whatever reason, though, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who take an oath agreeing to sacrifice their lives in the support and defense of our Constitution.

Yet we should show that appreciation not by those awkward moments like parading military members onboard an aircraft before anyone else, but in volunteering time and money to veterans' causes (like the Hero Miles Program), showing solidarity with military families in tangible ways like sharing meals, and voting for politicians who will not be so flippant in sending other people's children to war.

The bottom line is that while soldiers hold a special place in American society and deserve special recognition for their willingness to put themselves on the line for others, so do policemen, firemen, and some doctors and missionaries. All are paid for their work and receive satisfaction from doing a job that helps and protects others. They do not need to be reminded of that every time they step onto an airplane and there are much better ways, as I outlined above, to show gratitude.

The incredible sacrifice our military personnel have made from the Revolutionary War to the ongoing War in Afghanistan is something we must constantly keep at the forefront of our minds. But as General and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated in his 1945 Guildhall Address in London,  "Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends."

Eisenhower pinpoints the military mindset I mentioned earlier of humility. While I am sure that most military personnel humbly accept their invitation to board the aircraft first, wouldn't it be better to show our appreciation in a more sincere way? All the soldiers I know do not want special treatment or even to be thanked for their service--they are simply proud to have served.

United would be wise to show the military appreciation by cutting a check to the families of fallen and wounded sliders rather than parading military personnel in front of everyone else in a way that gives lip service to their hard work while completely glossing over the other professionals in this country who also are prepared at a moment's notice to make the ultimate sacrifice.


Nick May 30, 2011 at 08:09 pm

Unfortunately, the decision to board first is not one borne out of true respect or patriotism, but of public relations. It makes people think they are honoring the military, while costing absolutely nothing. If you want to see the good an airline can do while honoring those who serve, look at the work US Airways has done with the Flight of Honor program.

John May 31, 2011 at 12:04 am

Does United do the same thing in DXB, KWI and BAH? To US soldiers only or soldiers of another countries as well? Some international passengers might have various feeling about US soldiers.

@John: That's a parallel issue that I chose not to bring up. In addition to those concerns, what about members of military from other countries? If the point of UA is to recognize those who have served and sacraficed for their country, why not invite military personnel from other countries to board early as well?

And on a HNL-GUM flight that is half military, that's not a very efficient way to board.

@Nick: I agree fully. Thanks for noting the US Airways Flight of Honor program.

Brad May 31, 2011 at 08:16 am

Interesting points, and I agree. This is a slight tangent, but something I noticed when boarding a 757 IAD-ORD recently, and just a general complaint about the new boarding process.

Boarding began when the GA called for "uniformed military personnel" to board. There didn't appear to be any in uniform, but 2 men in plain clothes moved to the front and boarded. The were young and fit and had short haircuts, so they were conceivably off duty military.

Of course, then the rest of the boarding process began with about 50 people trying to cram through the door as she called all elites at once with no priority for FC, etc.

Larry May 31, 2011 at 08:23 am

I read several travel blogs and was very disappointed to note that of all of yesterday's postings only ONE, yours, mentioned the fact that it was actually Memorial Day. In this day and age of narcissistic travel, thanks for mentioning that our freedom to fly in style has actually come at some price.

Thanks Larry--I appreciate your feedback.

Brad, I agree fullly--I hate UA's new boarding process. The military thing is more of a political than a practical concern, but the idea of boarding all elites at once is disgusting to me.

JRG June 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

As a Soldier with 31 years of service, I submit the boarding issue is commercially driven. Soldiers are fine with just getting a handshake or thank you; it's our job we signed up for. Board us ahead of coach and that's enough of a thanks, and only if we are in uniform.

ZAN June 10, 2011 at 06:28 am

A couple of things about this post - first, your 90% of service members not serving in combat is anything but true. I'd put money on over half of our service members have or will see combat. (This was not necessarily the case prior to the 2003 time frame though)And this 50% figure is VERY conservative. And you really cannot compare the military to civil servants! As a veteran I'd expect more from you on that one. The only thing the military and civil servants have in common in that they both serve and most work for the government. Do you know why police officers thank military members for there service and vice versa? There is a number of reasons but just one is because the military is the only job that goes to war, leaves their homes for such extended periods of times living in hostile conditions 24/7 for 6,12,18+ months at a time. If service members in uniform board before me on an airplane (regardless of my status) I have NO problem with it and highly encourage it. People really need to step back and look at the big picture, will the 4 service members boarding before you really ruin your traveling experience? C'mon now.

John June 17, 2011 at 07:18 pm

@Zan- Actually, your view on civil servants is very outdated. I just got back from overseas and there were hundreds of civil servants and contractots who have been there for 12-18+ months. The military is the point of the spear, but the rest of it is not made up of the military! Now, if they board first I'm fine with that since we all land at the same time, but don't say my last 19 months away from my family is discounted because I'm a GS12 and not an military member!

Michelle March 18, 2013 at 11:38 am

Saying that we military should be in uniform when we travel just to board early isn't right either. Navy - we don't travel in uniform. Never once in my 16 year career have I traveled in uniform, except from bootcamp to first duty station. It's actually not necessary. Orders while TAD are good enough. And I don't know if pointing out the military is a good thing...so we can be the first to get picked on if there's another terrorist attack? We're not supposed to draw attention to ourselves anyway.

Sgt.Gary D Olson retired April 10, 2014 at 04:15 pm

I myself served in the jungle for 3 tours. have 2 hearts etc. If they want to board us first or last, I don't care. It's just nice to be home safe. STOP bitching. Thanks

george April 12, 2014 at 12:47 am

sgt olson feeling the need to comment when he perceives his need to be publicly jerked off everywhere he goes is challenged by someone on the internet


Sgt.Gary D Olson retired April 12, 2014 at 03:59 pm

I would like to take this time to remember all branches of the service. I would like a very special shout out to Marines and Rangers whom I respect and honor everyday of my life Thanks Guys I Love You All

Military Spouse April 16, 2014 at 01:52 pm

United just allows uniformed military personnel to board first to have a positive public image. When we actually need their help to fly my husband back home to see his dying father, they are of no help at all.... wait, I take that back - 5% off their outrages last minute fares. When we are not in uniform, but need to board early with a young child while being in the States on emergency leave, we cannot board early - my husband's service is only appreciated when he is uniform and others can see positive treatment. Shame on them! We do not travel with military gear due to safety reasons. United's boarding process is completely in their own interest - something that is absolutely free for them. This has nothing to do with them actually appreciating our fine men and women in the service. They are in the military 24/7 - no matter if they are in uniform or not. This boarding policy proves how clueless the airline is about the service and how they just want to take advantage of the public's support of our service members.

Stephen May 23, 2014 at 01:20 pm

I will open with the statement that I am strongly against this policy and also strongly against unceasing US military action around the globe. As stated in the article, there are many reasons that people voluntarily decide to pursue a career in the military. And while I can acknowledge that there may be a situation that warrants US military action, I have not seen it lately (at least not on the scale that we maintain).

I do not wish for my children to pursue a career in the military (or in government) and do not appreciate the endorsement of the military that is created by putting military personnel on a pedestal with this policy.

Thanks for raising this issue.

UareScum June 12, 2014 at 05:40 am

What a good little puppy you are. Elite are the men and women that serve this country selflessly. Aside from those who serve in actual combat these people sacrifice their freedoms to defend their countries. Just because you where a dirtbag in the air force doesn't make you a credible subject matter expert. What you consider elite is those who can afford a first class ticket. Wall Street bankers aren't elite. They are leeches in our society. I would give my seat to an active duty service member in a heartbeat. And I would steal the seat of a wall street banker with in that same heartbeat.

Buddy Oink June 12, 2014 at 03:31 pm

I agree. Nobody drafted them. I served as well and I didn't expect anything but a paycheck. Get in line with everyone else.

Robert October 14, 2014 at 01:00 pm

Stephen - So happy you enjoy the right to speak your mind and choose not to serve or have your children serve in the defending their country. Please remember, it is the men and women of our Armed Forces who swore an allegiance to the our constitution, guaranteeing you keep that right. A truly good thing we have families who support and endorse the military otherwise you might find the secret police at your bedside in the middle of the night for such treasonous speech. They have asked for so little, yet given more than you or your spoiled children will give in all your collective life times. Just say thank you and step aside and allow them to do their jobs.

Tricia January 27, 2015 at 01:42 am

As a military widow, whose husband and father of my three sons served voluntarily for 16 years and was Killed in Action, I say this to you Stephen. Your elitist attitude speaks volumes about your character. Whether you believe in the current wars or not, your obnoxious opinion on how a simple sign of gratitude may taint what YOU expect of your children's career choice shows what a small person you are. Interesting that you live in this free country but want to carefully control the future choices of your children. I suppose it was passengers just like you who couldn't be bothered to wait 5 minutes, out of respect, when they unloaded the remains of my husband at the local airport. Being one of the first guys off the plane trumps human decency to your kind. And for the record, my husband would never accept early boarding. When you are a person who believes in things bigger than yourself, you tend to be humble. So I leave you with this. I would rather be the widow of a hero than the wife of a coward. I doubt your wife can say the same.

Soldier August 27, 2015 at 06:44 pm

So, Stephen, your opinion of servicemembers depends on whether they served in a war that you approve of? You do realize that we have no say over where we're sent, right? Instead, we rely on a thoughtful and engaged citizenry to elect responsible politicians who are expected to make decisions of war and peace in the national interest. Alas, the commander-in-chief doesn't call you, Stephen, to ask for your approval of these decisions. If he did, then you'd respect the servicemembers who boarded 2 minutes before you.

You, sir, are an elitist ass.

Walker December 21, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Hell, I don't know about other branches, but in the Coast Guard we are strongly encouraged not to travel in uniform unless necessary for the job, as a security member. So this is a "perk" that we're encouraged not to take advantage of. And who wants to put on a dress uniform (we can't wear our working uniform, the ODU, on liberty, which is apparently different in other branches given how often I see you all wearing camouflage in Wal-mart) to jump to the front of the line?

I admit I do appreciate that Alaska Airlines allows all active duty to board early... But it's at the end of a list. "People needing more time to board, families with small children, and active duty members of the the military."

Stephen January 21, 2016 at 04:24 pm

Since I posted above, I have found others who are more qualified and have written more extensively and eloquently about this subject. I highly recommend (1) “War is a Racket”, written in 1935 by Smedley Butler, a United States Marine Corps major general (the highest rank authorized at that time), and (2) “War, Empire and the Military” by Laurence Vance.

I am very sorry for the loss of life of loved ones referenced above. I wish that they had not gone abroad in furtherance of undeclared “wars” and that they were safe at home today.

Alex June 20, 2016 at 01:15 pm

Sorry to disagree, but as a member of the armed services who actually deploys, I would say that it is a simple, nice, and polite way to thank those who are serving the country. Why should someone have to die to feel appreciated for spending countless hours bieng shot at and sleeping in uncomfortable conditions. It's nice to be treated good when you are used to working long hours and sleeping in harsh environments. I did honors and ceremonies for quite sometime and I have buried over 100 service members. I would say that giving someone a check after their loved ones die is not a reasonable form of gratitude. Any death will still hurt a family. A Purple Heart on a dead chest shouldn't be the defining moment of recognition for our servicemembers. Take the time to acknowledge servicemembers who are alive and fighting for you to be free to write this passage and stop being so petty about a small token of appreciation.

Joshua August 15, 2016 at 05:01 pm

Marines cannot and do not fly in uniform. It paints a target on us, as well as stands in the way of the humility we all stand for in being humble about what we do. Airlines only board military in uniform. So without knowing it they are favoring those who served is other services but not Marines. Not an complaint, just further agreeable similation with thus article

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