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Airplane boarding is a battlefield, where travelers try anything they can to get on first, get to your seat, secure some overhead space and stake out their territory. Adding another skirmish into the process is American Airlines’ announcement today that it has overhauled its entire systemwide boarding process for flights within the US and Canada to allow customers who are traveling with a single personal carry-on item that fits under the seat in front of them to board before Group 2.

That means they’ll be boarding after all the elites and premium cabin flyers as well as those with Priority AAccess and Group 1 designation (including co-branded credit cardholders and those who have purchased Choice fares), but before the rest of general boarding. Here’s how the breakdown looks.

Screen shot 2013-05-16 at 9.37.30 AM

The new system was tested earlier this year at American Airlines gates at airports in Austin, Texas (AUS), Baltimore (BWI), Denver (DEN), Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (FLL), Kansas City, Mo. (MCI), Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and Washington-Dulles (IAD) and American reports that they received very positive passenger feedback.

While in theory this sounds great for your average traveler who’s either traveling very light or has checked a bag and just has a small carry-on with them, but I wonder how the airline is going to enforce it in practice.

I suspect that the agents working the check-in kiosks will be told to keep an eye out for these travelers and verify whether their carry-on qualifies, but then during the boarding process, you’d need the gate agent surveying passengers as they attempt to board, and then on the plane itself, flight attendants will have to be on the lookout to make sure these passengers aren’t actually putting their bags in the overhead space. It sounds like an enforcement nightmare! The one thing that might ease it is that with the new boarding process, customers who wish to board early before Group 2 can gate-check their carry-on bag at no charge. So I guess those that decide at the last minute they want to take advantage of this but have a carry on can just gate check it and still board early-ish.

For those with elite status or AAdvantage credit cards, this won’t affect boarding at all – it’s really aimed at non-elites or infrequent travelers it sounds like, and those who just want to get to their seat early.

What do you think? Has anyone experienced the new boarding procedure yet? How did it go?

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