There are few experiences in travel more painful than simply boarding a plane. Passengers oscillate between meandering and elbowing into the line in cramped disarray. And this isn’t just annoying; it costs both airlines and passengers precious time.
In response, United has announced a new boarding policy which prioritizes seating window seat passengers middle seats and aisles. Called WILMA, which stands for the “window, middle, aisle” seat order, it’s a process that’s long been known to expedite plane boarding.
However, while this news has been trending for days across social media, United’s new seating policy is actually one it used for many years before changing it in 2017, and it’s being reintroduced because boarding times have increased by a full two minutes over the past few years.
So what enabled United’s return to WILMA now? It wasn’t improved design or more nuanced planning. It’s actually the result of new technical capabilities that fixed a problem created by United’s penny pinching business plan.
What is WILMA?
WILMA boarding is relatively fast—and everything from independent academic modeling to Mythbusters has more or less proven it. If you have someone sit on an aisle or middle seat first, the person sitting at the window needs to cross over them. This often requires people to stand up, block the aisle, and basically tetris and re-tetris themselves into seats. But if you have the person on a window sit first, they can walk straight to their seat, unfettered. (Though, it should be noted that other carriers do swear by different strategies, and Lufthunsa appears to be the one other carrier of note using WILMA.)
Now, all United is really doing is re-introducing WILMA to their flights. And that makes sense. What makes less sense is, why did United ever ditch WILMA in the first place?
Where did WILMA go?
According to the company, WILMA was eliminated in 2017 when United introduced a new seating class known as Basic Economy. This barebones ticket didn’t allow someone to bring a carry-on bag or select their seat (at least, not without paying an extra fee). An extension of the intense nickel and diming of modern flight, travel site Thrifty Traveler went so far as to name United’s Basic Economy “single most-punitive restriction” across major airlines.
On its own, Basic Economy wasn’t necessarily a problem for how fast a plane could be boarded. Where it created problems was squeezing into United’s group boarding procedure. United explains that back in 2017, it was limited to seating just five Groups. Groups 1, 2, and 3 were for first class and your typical early boarding customers. WILMA kicked in at Group 4, which was dedicated to window seating. Then Group 5 allowed aisles and middle seats to board.
When United introduced Basic Economy in 2017, its technical limitations meant that it had to squeeze in this new ticket type to the existing five-Group structure. So aisles and middle seats were squeezed into Group 4, alongside those existing window seats. And Basic Economy took Group 5. When this change happened, WILMA disappeared.
Perhaps United would have stuck with this plan if boarding times didn’t lengthen as a result, but even a few additional minutes of boarding time can add up for an airline, given that these planes run several routes a day.
United needed “technical flexibility” to introduce a Group 6
To bring WILMA back in 2023, United introduced a Group 6 boarding option. This allowed United to separate windows back into their own Group 4, put aisles and middle seats back in Group 5, and then stick all of Basic Economy in the new Group 6. “Now that we have more technical flexibility to add an additional boarding group, we’re excited to bring WILMA back to provide a smoother window, middle, aisle boarding process flow that helps get passengers in their seats faster and save precious time during our boarding process,” a spokesperson told Fast Company.
When laying out the entire problem, it seems at least a little absurd that technical limitations—literally adding one group to boarding to what we assume to be United’s software—prevented United from using a faster boarding model for nearly half a decade. But such is the way of the air travel.
As one industry insider put it to me this week, “Anecdotally, I know there was a group of employees who’d been at United so long it was a badge of honor to be able to maneuver the legacy software systems.” Unfortunately, that legacy knowledge did little to maneuver people into their seats.