Will Southwest’s new boarding policies make customers want to get away?

by Janice Hough on January 31, 2013

southwest-passengers

Southwest Airlines has generally been known for its KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) travel rules. Simplicity has, over the years, done much to endear the airline to travelers.

Even as Southwest has followed other carriers into the add-on fee maze, the airline has largely kept it pretty simple. Until now. Their latest boarding offer has even some travel industry veterans confused.

After several phone calls and visits to the Southwest.com website, here is an attempt at an explanation:

For years, Southwest has had A, B and C boarding groups. (The “C” as many passengers say, stands for Center). Being in group A usually guarantees a decent seat and overhead space.

Originally, travelers could get into the first group simply by checking in as early as possible, starting 24 hours prior to flight time. (Which meant many travelers would set their watches, or have an administrative assistant set THEIR watch, to make sure they got the A boarding pass.)

Like many airlines, Southwest then started giving priority to its most frequent customers. So “A List” members automatically get into the first boarding group.

Then the airline started offering EarlyBird check-in for $10 each way, which allowed passengers to be automatically checked in more than 24 hours in advance. The fee has been popular, and in fact will soon be raised, reportedly to $12.50.

More recently, Southwest came up with “Business Select,” a higher priced fare that is completely changeable, comes with free drinks and, most importantly for many frequent fliers, guarantees a boarding pass numbered from A-1 to A-15, which means they will be the very first 15 people to board the plane.

For most travelers, the system has been working without too many headaches. Purchasing EarlyBird check-in doesn’t absolutely guarantee the A boarding group (in case of a flight with a full Business Select section, and more than 45 elite fliers), but I’ve not had a client complain yet.

But the latest wrinkle in the boarding process may or may not be the one that really damages Southwest’s customer friendly reputation. It’s another new early boarding fee — $40 for “Priority Boarding.”

This new $40 fee cannot be paid in advance and will only be available for sale at the airport, if Southwest has not sold all their “Business Select” seats. When available, 45 minutes before departure, paying this fee will allow passengers to join the first A 1-15 group.

Does this new fee and policy mean people who don’t pay the extra $40 won’t be able to get an aisle seat? Probably not. But it does mean that Business Select and Priority boarders will probably nab the exit row seats and the much coveted seats in the first rows.

While Southwest for now will only allow up to 15 in this early boarding subgroup, it’s hard to imagine if the concept takes off, that the airline won’t be tempted to expand it.

Then, what happens if it reaches the point that checking in exactly 24 hours in advance, or paying a regular Earlybird check-in fee, still means potentially ending up in a center seat?

Airline passengers are a resilient lot, but since Southwest has made its reputation on no fees and egalitarian customer service, I have to wonder: how long until many of its fans “want to get away” to another airline?

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  • MeanMeosh

    What this effectively means is that the first 15 boarding positions will get used up on each flight. My seat-of-the-pants guesstimate is that this means another 5 or so seats taken up on average before non-Business Select or A-listers get to board, so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. And you’re right, I could see Southwest expanding this if it works, to something like filling all of the A 1-30 boarding spots with people willing to pay the fee. But that all but guarantees that Early Birders, along with possibly some A-listers depending on how full the flight is, will get stuck with a B boarding pass, which just won’t fly, pardon the pun. So I think they’ll tread lightly there.

  • bill

    what happens in reality and in the minds of consumers are two different things – i agree that this new “selling opportunity” will not affect the overall situation – $40 is quite steep unless you are on a transcon. but it will get in the minds of consumers, and the tide may change on southwest. everyone things southwest is the cheapest airline out there – in reality, southwest’s fares are not that much lower. but that is the perception. time will tell if this new option will change that perception.

  • ric

    and the $10 earlybird is a joke….on a recent flight to denver i purchased the earlybird so that i could grab seats for my companion and i to sit together, ie. window and center. The earlybird got me A58, and her regular 24hr checkin (actually 2 hours late) landed her a B10, so, pretty much a wasted 10 bucks…

  • James Penrose

    Eventually, all your ticket price will guarantee you is the ability to select from the multitude of other options “for your convenience” of course, in order to actually *fly* to your destination.

    If you decline any of the “options” you board the plane last if at all and may at the airlines discretion, be given a ticket on Greyhound (getting to the bus station with your luggage will be your responsibility) to any location they choose within fifty miles of your ticketed destination. Thank you for flying AirGotcha, we know you have a choice and why you chose us remains a (profitable) mystery.

  • rockymtranger

    I really don’t see the big deal here. There are usually five or so spots open in that 1-15 group, and if someone wants to pay $40 to hop in one, good on Southwest for finding a way to be profitable and not gouge me in the process.

  • mapsmith

    The idea when you have a situation such as you describe, is the first person to board sits in a middle seat. Most couples will not purposefully separate to sit on either side of an occupied middle. So the late arrival will have either a window or aisle next to you. (or you move to the window or aisle and let you companion have the center)

    It works.

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  • NateInPhoenix

    The overall trend of creating levels of privilege is what goes against the Southwest grain, so to speak. The whole point of their boarding and marketing stance (originally) was to position them as an egalitarian airline where everyone has a chance at a “good” seat. But the reality is that each time they introduce an opportunity to purchase privilege, it erodes the equal starting ground for all passengers. It used to be that purchasing early bird check in guaranteed an A boarding group. And I used to purchase EB for all of my flights back then. But It no longer does. They’ve actually changed the language over the years as the overwhelming success (utilization) of the EB program and the introduction of business select, have basically eliminated their ability to make such a guarantee. So now it reads, “EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t guarantee an A boarding position, it improves your seat selection options to help you get your favorite seat.” which ultimately means that it only buys you a slightly better position than someone who is sitting like a cracked out lunatic wildly clicking the check-in button at 6:30am exactly 24 hours before departure time, the second check-in opens up….only to find that they’ve been relegated to the middle seats (by way of late B, or C boarding groups) despite their best efforts. If enough people bite on the $40 upgraded boarding position offer, then Southwest will undoubtedly expand the number of those positions they offer to the first 30 or so boarding customers, which will further devalue the Early Bird product by shifting those passengers further into the B and perhaps even the C group. I suspect that is their goal all along anyway….they’ll continue to raise the price of EB check-in and simultaneously continue to expand the $40 elite boarding option to the point where customers realize EB has no real value and they abandon it and willingly jump straight to the $40 upgrade fee. They’ve already captured those people that are willing to pay it in advance by way of Business Select tickets. This is just a way for Southwest to skirt the rules of transparency in ticketing practices by selling a product that isn’t covered by those rules…..namely, upgraded boarding position in a free-for-all seating environment. It’s quite genius actually….instead of making customers mad at them for not being able to work seat magic, they pit customers against one another in a bidding war for preferential boarding position. As always, the richest players at the table eventually win.

    AND….what they fail to tell you when you are booking, is whether the flight you are booking is a CONTINUING flight. Meaning, the flight number doesn’t change and passengers do not need to de-board during a stop. So, for example, there is a continuing flight that leaves Los Angeles, stops in Phoenix, then goes on to El Paso, then finally to Dallas (because Southwest can’t fly direct into Dallas from outside the Wright Amendment area, at least not until 2014). If I am a passenger boarding in LA bound for Dallas, I don’t have to deboard that plane at each of the stops in Phoenix and El Paso AND I get to move seats when all of the people bound for Phoenix deplane, and again when the people bound for El Paso deplane. So….if I am boarding in Phoenix or El Paso, there may already be 30-60 people aboard that plane (who are headed to a later stop) who’ve already moved into the aisle, window, front, exit row, etc seats before even the A1-A15 people board. Thus, further devaluing the EB product. I was one of the carry through passengers traveling from Phoenix to Dallas once, and only 40 +/- people deboarded in El Paso. All that were left were middle seats, which meant that even for A1, they only had middle seats to choose from. Some of them had paid for EB check-ins and there were enough expletives muttered and even shouted to flight attendants to make even a sailor blush.

  • BSchilling21212

    I also agree that there is a perception that Southwest is the cheapest airline and they really aren’t. I fly from San Diego to Baltimore quite regularly and even with 1 checked bag in each direction I can still get my airfare for $75-$100 cheaper (roudtrip) on Delta or USAir, especially if you add in EB check-in or a $40 upgrade! And….I don’t have to fight for my seat.

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