Q&A: Understanding airline card boarding policies

What you need to get the perk, and how to make sense of new boarding groups

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I have an AAdvantage Platinum Select Card that is supposed to offer priority boarding. If I purchased the ticket using another credit card (my corporate American Express), do I still get the early boarding privileges offered by the airline credit card? I just took a flight and I entered my AAdvantage number on the reservation, but I was still put in boarding Group 5. – Ches

Answer Dear Ches,
Early boarding is one of the perks that come with airline credit cards. With passengers racing onboard to try to claim some of the scarce overhead space, priority boarding helps guard against being forced to check a roll-on bag. It’s a time-saver. 

Through the years, airlines have had different ways of offering this perk to cardholders. It used to be that you had to actually use the card to pay for your ticket. If you didn’t, you could maybe flash your card at the gate and try to sweet talk your way on board with a friendly gate agent, but there were no guarantees.

Now, though, if you examine the benefit rules for cards linked to American, Delta and United, you will see that all they say is that you have to have your frequent flier information associated with your ticket before the flight. In other words, your frequent flier account holds the information, and it tells the airline whether you have the benefit on your card or not. If you have friends or relatives traveling with you on the same reservation, they receive the early boarding, too.

Note that priority boarding tends to be a perk only on airlines that have traditional assigned seating. Those airlines that board on a first-come, first-serve basis, such as Southwest, generally don’t have priority boarding that comes with their associated credit cards. 

In your case, you actually did everything correctly to receive priority boarding. You entered your frequent flier information on the reservation, but you can’t understand why the airline assigned you Group 5 for boarding.

What you might not realize is that effective March 1, American changed its boarding zones. Group 5 sounds lousy, but under the new classifications, it is still considered “preferred boarding.” That’s because there are now nine boarding groups, but previously, American allowed its first class and elite frequent fliers to board first, followed by its four designated boarding groups.

Those elite fliers now have their own groups. So the boarding order hasn’t really changed, just the terminology. Group 5 is open to Citi AAdvantage Platinum and Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator cards, certain corporate travelers and some passengers traveling in main cabin premium seats. The people boarding before Group 5 include first class, active military, elite-level frequent fliers and people with Citi AAdvantage Executive cards (Group 4).

Everybody else – all the ordinary travelers, who have no special reason to board early – board in Group 6 or later. At the end of the queue, in Group 9, are people with the new basic economy fares.

See related: Can you get the cheapest airline seats with reward points?, Finding the best rewards card for airline and hotel upgrades 

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Updated: 02-19-2019