New boarding procedure at SFO + Virgin PreCheck + CLEAR/PreCheck integration

United's new boarding area queues at SFO (Chris McGinnis)

United’s new boarding area queues at SFO (Chris McGinnis)

NEW BOARDING PROCEDURE AT SFO. United has installed new gate layouts at SFO and other US airports to help better manage the boarding process. Instead of waiting to board in bunches, each group is now divided into separate boarding lines in the following order:

  • Group 1 –  Global Services, Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, first, biz class
  • Group 2 –  Premier Gold, Star Gold, Premier Alliance Silver, Star Alliance Silver, paid Premier Access, Chase Club Card and Chase Presidential Plus Card holders
  • Group 3 –  All Economy Plus and regular economy window seats (most likely to get overhead bin space)
  • Group 4 –  Regular economy middle seats
  • Group 5 –  Regular economy aisle seats (least likely to get overhead bin space)

I flew United to Boston last week and have to say that the new system seems to be working well, even if it does remind me of the frequently derided Southwest Airlines “cattle call.” United claims the new boarding process is 20% faster. What do you think? Have you been through the new boarding process? Please leave your comments below.

Precheck logo TMVIRGIN JOINS PRECHECK. No airline can claim to coddle business travelers unless they are part of the wildly popular PreCheck program, which offers member access to TSA’s “trusted traveler” fast lanes at 40+ airports across the US. Last week, Virgin America joined American, Delta, United and US Airways as the PreCheck’s fourth US airline. (Southwest Airlines says, “we are working on it.”) This means that  members of Virgin’s Elevate program who are part of Global Entry or similar trusted traveler programs offered by Customs and Border Protection can now pass through special security lanes that do not require the removal of shoes, belts or coats and laptops can stay inside carry-on bags for x-ray screening. If you are already a member of PreCheck through another airline, be sure to add your PASS ID to your Virgin America profile! IMPORTANT: Members of PreCheck are randomly chosen—while it’s likely you’ll hear those lovely “three beeps” when your boarding pass is scanned by agents, it’s not guaranteed like CLEAR. For more information on PreCheck, Clear and Global Entry, be sure to see our post, The No-Hassle Travel Trifecta.

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CLEAR, PRECHECK INTEGRATION AT SFO. Clear and PreCheck are integrating operatons at SFO. PreCheck is currently located in T3 (main United entrypoint) and T2 (American and Virgin America) at SFO. (Even though United operates flights out of T1, there is no PreCheck lane there.) As part of the integration, CLEAR  says that Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 12.47.21 PMwill soon add  a location adjacent to PreCheck United Premier/First/Business security entrypoint on the western end of T3. Once the integration is complete, CLEAR members who also qualify for PreCheck will enter security under the CLEAR cube, and then get an escort to the PreCheck lane. How will it work? CLEAR CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker told TravelSkills: “It is the exact same CLEAR process as today, but when we scan the boarding pass, we not only do a name match, but our system can read also the embedded barcode to determine whether a member is PreCheck eligible for that particular trip. If eligible, the member is guided to the PreCheck physical screening lane.”

ONE YEAR OF CLEAR AT SFO. Last week CLEAR celebrated one full year at SFO and provided TravelSkills with the following tidbits: There are now six CLEAR lanes at SFO (at least one at every terminal) and the company has created 50 jobs in the Bay Area. CLEAR members have passed through CLEAR lanes at SFO over a million times. Nearly 200 Bay Area companies offer corporate plans to help their frequent travelers steer clear of security lines. San Francisco is home to the largest number of active CLEAR members.

ROCKETMILES REMINDER. Remember when we recently wrote about the new mega-mileage bonuses offered by new sites like Rocketmiles and Pointshound? These sites curate upscale hotels in major cities and offer travelers huge airline mileage bonuses for bookings made through them. For today only, Rocketmiles is offering DOUBLE miles on hotel bookings– so if you have any trips coming up, today would be the day to make those bookings. Plus, since we signed on for referral bonuses from Rocketmiles, we earn 1000 miles for each booking you make from this link— and so do you!

Have you seen the new-style Global Entry kiosks at SFO? (Chris McGinnis)

Have you seen the new-style Global Entry kiosks at SFO? (Chris McGinnis)

LINES FOR GLOBAL ENTRY KIOSKS? Last month TravelSkills reader D.I. wrote in stating: “Just arrived on UA 838 from Tokyo and the Global Entry Kiosk line stretched to the entry to the hall (where you turn left to go to the kiosks).   Average line size seems to be increasing, which diminishes the value of this perk.  Any news on whether more kiosks are coming?” Seemed surprising since nearly every time I’ve entered the US via Global Entry kiosk, the wait (if there was one at all) was more like one minute. So I asked DI for more details. He said, “There were at least 50 people in line and it took about ten minutes. Actually this was faster than two weeks ago when the line was shorter but two of the kiosks weren’t working and also there were a number of people who weren’t familiar with the machines. On the good side, there is now an agent there helping people work the machines and to make sure people don’t wait when there are open machines down the line.” Have you noticed back ups at Global Entry kiosks at SFO or elsewhere? Please leave your comments/experiences below.

Chris McGinnis


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  • Barry

    Haven’t had an issue with waiting for Global Entry.

    Very grateful for the new boarding system on United. Hated the cattle funnel it was before.

  • Eric Westby

    Actually, there’s one slight error in your United boarding post: GS members are allowed to pre-board prior to anyone in Group 1, as mentioned on the United corporate blog. ( Any remaining GS passengers can then board with Group 1 if they wish, but it’s not as if they’re lumped in with the rest.

  • inFrequent Flyer

    With UAL’s new boarding policy, do travelers then get separated from their companions? Not everyone flies alone…

  • Chris McGinnis

    Thanks! I’ll fix that.

  • mrwritesf

    FYI, the author accidentally reversed the airline/terminal pairs. United operates out of T3 and Virgin America / American operate out of T2.

  • sfomsp

    Look at Lane 5 in that picture. No room to wheel a piece of luggage through that. Not planned that way, but it insinuates you shouldn’t bother to bring a bag in Group 5!

  • nadia

    I boarded a flight using the new United system and it was great. No group jumpers hovering around the gate blocking access to those with earlier boarding groups or trying to board early. The boarding groups seemed to be nicely separated and in generally orderly lines. I even observed the refreshing sight of the gate agent refusing to let someone board ahead of their boarding group.

  • John R. Grout

    The new United procedure borrows from Shuttle. So does the use of 737’s.

  • flyer

    “The biggest problem I saw with the new UA boarding process … is large number of people to bunch up in front of their group signs”. I experience this yesterday in Houston and the Los Angeles – making it difficult to get to Alaskan Airlines flights further down the concourse. It seems as if United passengers took over the hallway.

  • SFO1K

    United is in T3, American & Virgin America are in T2.
    United Express has some flights from T1, but they do not operate check-in or baggage claim from T1, so it would be misleading to suggest they operate from T1 in the context of security checkpoints.

  • AndyF

    So, in this context CLEAR losses all pretext of being a pre-screening service, and becomes just a $180-a-year, line-cutting service?

  • Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Andy. I think you answered your first question in your second papagraph– With an increasing number of folks getting PreCheck, CLEAR’s going to get you ahead of them in line. –chris

  • AndyF

    What’s the benefit of CLEAR if you get PreCheck? Are they planning to escort CLEAR members to the front of the PreCheck line? That would be infuriating.

    I haven’t seen long lines at Global Entry, but last week the PreCheck line at SFO T3 was as long as the normal line (maybe 10 people in each). Of course, we still got through quicker, love PreCheck!

  • ML

    I think you got your terminal numbers wrong in the clear/precheck piece. United is in T1 and Virgin+American are in T2.

  • Chris McGinnis

    Thanks DJP. Based on comments like yours and others, it sounds like United did this one right. — chris

  • DJP

    I boarded a United flight at ORD this morning with their new system. It was very quick and efficient, and the lanes were clearly marked, so there was minimal confusion.

  • dc396

    The biggest problem I saw with the new UA boarding process at gate 81 is that it caused a large number of people to bunch up in front of their group signs all the way to the moving walkway, completely blocking pedestrian access to other gates (or for folks walking from gate 83 or higher towards the terminal). Teething pains I suppose.

  • James

    On the subject of SW-style cattle-call, I got to experience it on a flight to LAX on Monday. It did feel a bit quicker but people were still slow to stand in their assigned group. And a few “suits-and-ties” type in Groups 3-5 could be seen aggravated.

  • Ken

    I’ve never seen more than 5 people in line for the Global Entry kiosks on the G side. (I rarely re-enter on the A side.)

  • Laurence M

    I have seen people queuing for the SFO Global Entry kiosks – though only 5-10 at a time. It makes sense that more and more people are joining the GE program given the PreCheck benefit.

    Sadly, there’s still an awkward hurried RUSH after people deplane, to get to the kiosk first. I think it’s very funny how people walk very fast to get to the passport control, then have to wait 20 or so minutes for checked bags :)

    Once I was in front of two UA pilots going through the GE kiosk, and the pilots had to wait for a free kiosk. One said to the other something like “only in silicon valley would there be a queue for global entry” – just shows that we are the early adopters!