Delta Zones and the Ubiquitous Gate Crowders


Gate crowding (rushing the departure gate for your flight as soon as any announcement has been made) is both an art form and a completely insane waste of your time… and mine. Let me start this post with a quick axiom:

We’re all going to arrive at the same time.

Knowing this, please sit your butt down until your zone is called. Seriously; what in the human DNA forces this sort of herd mentality that creates a bottleneck of infrequent flyers at the gate long before their zone is called? As I wrote: we are all going to arrive at the same time. Moreover, unless you’re seated in First Class, there is no drink reward waiting for you should you board early.

I understand that the often limited overhead space contributes to the fear (in some) that “I might (God forbid) have to gate check my bag if we run out of overhead space;” but, does this justify the physical blocking of my only path to the Sky Priority Lane?

No, it does not.

Of course, like everything else in your life, this is not your fault. Seriously, gate crowding is not the fault of the uninitiated traveler. Gate crowding, and all of its intended and unintended consequences, is the fault of the airlines. For me, this primarily means that Delta is causing the issue.

As a proud Delta Diamond Medallion flyer, I know all of the rules. I know all of the ins and the outs of everything Delta, TSA and airports in general. For example, I know the best place to get grub in Salt Lake City’s Terminal C (Squatters – the Roadhouse Nachos with shredded pork are incredible regardless of the time of day), as well as the best place for exceptional wine at MSP (Surdyk’s Flights). Of course, that means I also know and understand the Delta Boarding Zone System (DBZS).

Delta, like most non-Southwest airlines, boards by Zones. They start with those “Needing Extra Time to Board the Aircraft” followed by “Families Traveling with Children Under the Age of 2.” This is, you see, the essence of the DBZS and where the confusion often begins. Those holding a ZONE 1 boarding pass assume incorrectly that they will be the next to board.

They will not.

The third group to board a Delta flight is the First Class cabin, also called the Premium Zone. (We have “PREM” printed on our boarding passes where the rest of you have “SKY” or a Zone Number.)

After the Premium Zone, Delta boards their Sky Priority Customers (SKY). (These are the frequent flyers that are usually a little pissed off that they were not upgraded to First Class.)

Finally, we get to Zone 1.

Yep, you read that right: Zone 1 in the DBZS seems to board after most everyone else. Of course, they don’t have far to walk – the DBZS caused the gate-crowding confusion that culminated into a stampede of frightened newbies – everyone is already in front of the departure gate, ready to board.

It’s important to understand that those holding a Zone 1 boarding pass are inexperienced with this whole “Delta Thing.” They are not frequent flyers (if they were, their boarding passes would read “SKY”); thus, they are neophytes when it comes to loading a Delta jet. They don’t know what to do or where to go, so they panic in unison like a herd of Wildebeests.

As I wrote earlier, they should just sit quietly until their zone is called. The problem is they can’t. They think – because of their natural interpretation of “Zone 1” – that they will be the first to board the aircraft. They will not only NOT be the first to board the aircraft, they are likely (at most Delta gates) to be the 5th group to load.

Yes, you read that correctly, as well: Zone 1 is the 5th group to load the flight. For most Delta flights, these are the first five boarding groups in order:

1. Those needing extra assistance
2. Families traveling with small children
3. First Class (PREM)
4. Sky Priority (SKY)
5. ZONE 1

They are the 5th group to board the plane!

I know this, my fellow frequent flyers know this, everyone working at Delta knows this. The only people who don’t know this are those holding a ZONE 1 boarding pass. (Don’t even get me started with the ZONE 2 and ZONE 3 groups thinking they will board second and third, respectively.)

It’s time for Delta to change the DBZS and their zone nomenclature.

In fact, it’s well past the time for Delta to make this change. They should, in all honesty, have done this years ago. Here is my proposal:

It’s simple: Let’s change the name of Zone 1 to Zone 5; Zone 2 to Zone 6; and Zone 3 to Zone 7. They can even call it The Stauning Plan after its creator… me.

The Stauning DBZS

Imagine if a new flyer is seated near their Delta gate and they hear the announcement for those needing extra assistance to board. They glance down at their boarding pass and see “ZONE 5” in black and white. What’s their next move?


That’s right; they’ll stay seated instead of rushing the gate. Their expectations are correctly aligned with reality: that is, they will be the fifth group to board.

Now, imagine (as I do) that because they remained seated, I have a clear path to the gate as I board after receiving my First Class upgrade. Isn’t life great?