Anyone Can Get Away With The Southwest Preboarding Scam – And The Airline Just Shrugs

Southwest Airlines is known for the games people play to secure the best seats, because the airline doesn’t assign seats – it’s first-board, first-served. That means anything you can do to board earlier increases your chance of getting a better seat – and getting it for free.

The airline is known for its Jetbridge Jesus flights where dozens of passengers board in wheelchairs, to get on first have their first pick of seats, but walk off just fine at the end of the flight themselves.

While it’s true that ‘not every disability is visible’ and it’s conceivable someone might need help boarding but not deplaning, the fact that boarding earlier gets you a better seat on Southwest is why you see scores of wheelchair passengers lining up for boarding far more often with them than other airlines.

A Southwest passenger complained on social media about four young girls and their parents pre-boarding their flight despite “not need[ing] assistance or extra time” and Southwest responded that “many disabilities aren’t visible” so they are “unable to question preboarding requests.”

Here are the ‘disabled’ passengers in question that the airline was responding to:

Southwest Airlines is considering creating premium seating, which would require assigned seats at least for the premium section. That could cut down on the rush to board – and the fake preboard requests. (At other airlines people want to preboard to ensure overhead bin space for their carry-on, but that’s less of an issue at Southwest where checked bags are free.)

If you’re going to pull the preboarding scam on Southwest, then, it might be wise to do it soon – in case the loophole gets closed. Or consider not trying it at all, because passengers who ask for wheelchair assistance in order to get priority take away those wheelchairs from someone that really needs it, causing them to wait longer for help.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The answer is simple. Pre-boarders must first occupy the very back seats in the A/C. First on, last off.

  2. If the only choice to fly out of my hometown was Southwest I would take the bus every time.
    LUV sucks.

  3. My 94 year old mother would be able to make it all the way to the back of the airplane. But, that’s why when she was still flying last year, we flew on an airline that assigned seats, and were in the pointy end of the airplane. Wheelchair to the door, and just a few steps to the seat, and she got to see her only granddaughter get married. Southwest is doing a disservice to people with an inability to walk far.

  4. Wiley nails it. If you need extra time to board then you need extra time to deplane. Back of the plane! You don’t want to be run over by someone rushing off the plane, right? iT’s FoR yOuR sAfEtY! Bet the number of preboarders suddenly drops about 90%.

    But the bigger problem is this wheelchair conga line is SLOWING TURNS for SWA which costs them money. Something MUST be done with these lying dirtbags.

  5. It says “young girls” and 4 of them.. It does not say their age..maybe their were 2-5 yrs old ? .. That certainly is a situation where pre-boarding is probably a good thing.. Just waaaaayyyy too much complaining about EVERYTHING these days. wow!

  6. by the way, I didn’t see the video I guess until after I posted the above.. Yeah, they are older.. Still, we don’t know the story.. It will manifest itself eventually and they’ll be banded from boarding early..Truth always washes out in time.

  7. It is obvious that those young girls are suffering from a serious case POA affliction! We need to stop being so dismissive of those in need of attention…..

  8. Always sad to see people game the system to ruin it for others. I myself am neutral on the concept of Southwest boarding. Like many commenters here and in past threads have said it would seem proper from a safety and liability perspective for the airline to require anyone with a disability that necessitates wheelchair assistance to board to also have one deplaning after everyone else has gotten off so they can take their time.

  9. Take away the incentive by just not allowing Preboarders to sit in rows 1 through 15 nor the exit aisle which is already prohibited. Simple.

  10. Pre boarding is mainly for people and kids with autism and also those handicapped . But I have seen this wheelchair scam for flights to and from Orlando . I have a son with autism and I always end up behind those fake wheelchair users. Next time I won’t allow any wheelchair ahead of us when we are first in one . Southwest does stop many people boarding with a wheelchair though.

  11. They should announce boarding as a cavalcade of wheelchairs and failed birth control. If they don’t that’s what everyone is thinking.

  12. Very timely article. Today I boarded Southwest flight 4035 from RNO to LAX. Sure enough there was one person in a wheelchair for early boarding. I sat behind him. He managed to get up with no problem move baggage around and didn’t have any disability. As the plane landed at LAX the man and his lady friend quickly exited.

  13. I feel sorry for the girls who are learning a horrible life lesson – how to take advantage of other people for your own selfishness. This is the crumbling of society. The fix isn’t on Southwest – the fix is on the Dept of Transportation who says you can’t ask for proof of a disability. Why isn’t anyone writing to the DOT? Just like my mom has a handicap plaquard to park up front, she should show her plaquard paperwork to be able to board. End of Issue.

  14. If Southwest doesn’t want to assign seats for those who pay for early boarding maybe they should board them first instead. Nothing truly requires wheelchair bound passengers be boarded first.

  15. Pretend to be disabled and remember you might end up with your scam. Karma.

  16. I fly SWA quite frequently, and pay for “early bird” positioning all the time…and it’s worth it as I always snag an “A” boarding position. That being said, illegitimate “pre-boarders” really are abusing what normally is a sane, calm, process. I would 100% support some sort of adjustment in boarding policies to “police” this situation a bit more.

  17. One of the many reasons I avoid SouthWest. (Though the shuttle from Hobby to Love is quite efficient and devoid of wheelchairs!)

  18. Yet another consequence of their antique and boneheaded open seating system. I once asked for an aisle seat when I had a broken tailbone and needed to stand frequently, which they couldn’t accommodate other than allowing me pre-boarding. I had a donut in my backpack, but otherwise looked healthy and “young” so I got plenty of dirty looks which of course would have been simpler all around if WN acted like a real airline and could assign seats.

  19. Can you please identify how you know that no one in the photos doesn’t say have any endocrine disease such as diabetes that entitles them access to Preboarding? Sigh.

  20. do what wizzair do…anybody who requests mobility assistance is automatically assigned a window seat to the rear of the aircraft. In the event of an emergency, able bodied persons will be able to evacuate the aircraft without being impeded.
    and don’t you dare try and change to your seat once onboard – the crew know exactly who have mobility assistance booked!
    Note tho that Wizzair rarely use jet bridges

  21. l agree with all those who observe: Simple solution— pre-boarders do not get free choice of seat once on board; to the rear of the plane they go. Pre-boarders are necessarily “post-deplaners” for the exact same reason both ways: They need more time getting on… AND OFF.

  22. Anyone that request a wheel chair on a flight is automatically signed up for wheel chair on inbound flight. If the inbound/destination chair is not used (reserved in their name), this person can never get a wheel chair unless they prove it is required.

  23. I think their policies would be fine if people didn’t take advantage of the invitation to abuse them – unneeded wheelchairs, saving seats. But as long as you reward bad behavior, some will engage in it; and as the numbers increase, the temptation to join them grows. I dislike situations where jerk behavior is encouraged and beneficial, so I rarely fly Southwest, even though their departures from my airport are similar in number to the other major airlines that serve it.

  24. Welcome to the club. The same thing happens with handicap parking. I would guess 90% of the people who park in handicap spaces are not disabled.

  25. I agree with ibcarolek that you should need to show a handicap placard in order to pre-board. It requires a doctor to fill in a form attesting that you cannot walk a certain distance (at least in Massachusetts) or you have some other relevant disability. These are the people who need pre-boarding…

  26. For crying out loud, isn’t it time for WN to allow the flying public to book their seat assignment when they purchase their ticket, either on-line or with a reservation agent? Their method of open seating, first come first served worked fine 40 years ago when the WN route system was primarily short point to point flights in and out of DAL and HOU. Doesn’t work anymore.

  27. I paid extra for early board seating and when I got on the plane, there were people saving dozens of seats. SW is absolutely the WORST airlines for the boarding process. I would encourage everyone who uses the airline to email the corporate office and let them know you disapprove of this “cheating” used to abuse the system. and if it doesn’t change, you will use another airlines. Assign the seats!! I am sick and tired of it.

  28. I want to see this evolve to the logical limit: everyone requests pre-boarding. SW then realizes the solution is to have assigned seats.

  29. WileyDog did nail it, however, you’re all not seeing what Southwest will ultimately do – charge for a reserved seat.

    More money for the airline == problem solved, because those who want to be up front will get their up front seat with their $5/10 upcharge (depending where on the plane.)

  30. My wife legitimately needs wheelchair assistance for preboarding. Normally, we are among the last people off as you have to wait for wheelchair pushers to arrive at the destination. Our usual airport for departures is Burbank, which doesn’t have jetways, so we need a strong person to push her up the ramp (they used to use a lift, but they now have a ramp with switchbacks). She can walk short distances in the plane.

    And we have seen many people heal up quickly.

    European airports are much more efficient at this than U.S. airports

  31. “The answer is simple. Pre-boarders must first occupy the very back seats in the A/C. First on, last off.”

    Great idea but I’m sure this would be challenged as illegal somehow. I’m confident they already considered it and their lawyers said no.

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