Caught in the Act: Southwest Flyers Busted Trying To Use Companion Pass Without Buying Ticket

One of the most lucrative offers in travel is the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass. Earn 135,000 qualifying points in a calendar year and you get free companion travel (pay just the taxes) for the rest of the year, and for the following year. You can designate your companion who gets to travel with you whether you’re paying for your own seat in cash, or with points.

Filed under “this is why we can’t have nice things,” some Companion Pass holders try to get their companion’s travel for free without paying for their own ticket at all.

On a recent Southwest flight from Savannah to Baltimore, two passengers checked in for the flight – the companion pass holder and the companion – but only the companion actually boarded flight 2097.

Just over 10 minutes prior to the 1:50 p.m. scheduled departure, the companion pass holder cancelled their own ticket for a full refund.

  • Southwest’s systems show that the companion ticket has been cancelled in order to refund the original ticket.
  • So even though the passenger has boarded, Southwest needs to offload the companion.
  • This is harder to do because Southwest doesn’t have assigned seating – they don’t know where she is on the aircraft!
  • And this can cause delays!

The companion trying to fly for free without the paid ticket holder “got found out and was subsequently removed from the flight” and the airline had to do “a manual boarding pass check” to identify the person they needed to offload from the flight.

-Apparently, this is a common occurrence; while the universal consensus is not to practice this “hack,” there are threads about it online, and it is “nothing new,” as some readers have put it

-The only supposed way to stop this abuse of WN is for their IT to require the ticketed CP holder to board before the ticketed companion

It’s worth knowing that Southwest’s IT – which in many cases is not very modern – does have the ability to check for this. Don’t try it at home. And certainly don’t try it often, even aside from it not working, because you could risk your companion pass, your Rapid Rewards account, and even your future ability to fly Southwest.

Another thing worth knowing is that the two linked passengers really do have to fly together. “What if I die while snorkeling (seems to happen a lot in Hawaii)? Is her CP ticket home gone because I’m no longer there?” Yes! Unless you work something out with Southwest Airlines as an exception in advance, but that’s how the system is set up.

An FBI special agent complained to me earlier this year about Southwest’s lack of assigned seats. When there’s an issue on board they can’t tie a name to a seat, and have had to deplane and reboard everyone when looking for a specific person who’d boarded.

Personally what I’ve always wanted to see Southwest Airlines do is let the Companion Pass holder book the free companion seat for themselves to guarantee extra space on the aircraft. They could be given a seat card, like the airline offers to ‘passengers of size’ who book themselves extra space. That would be a great benefit, especially for folks who earn their companion pass by flying so much they don’t have time in their lives to find a companion!

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. It seems like a better setup would be how cell phone carriers handle free phone offers, you agree pay full price with delayed billing but receive a credit as long as you don’t cancel your plan. In this case customers could agree to pay full fair for their companion, due the day after the flight, with the understanding of receiving a full credit against that fair if they fly too. If they don’t fly, they could get their refund, but would then be charged the same amount for their companion. After all, there could be many more likely reasons to miss a flight other than snorkeling accidents. For example, two partners in a small business could use the companion pass to attend a convention where they have a booth. The companion pass holder could wake up with a fever the day of the flight.

  2. There are many possibilities for why this situation happened. Of course it could be someone angling to get a free seat. Other possibilities could be a family emergency for the companion pass holder or a work emergency or getting sick or any of a number of things. There is no certain way to make the person using the companion pass as the purchaser of the ticket so that person could fly and do whatever at the destination.

  3. A company trying to do good for them and customers and losers try to abuse the system.

  4. Gary. I’ve been trying to get Southwest to let me use my companion pass for an extra seat for myself since I “paid” for it. This includes at least 5 letters over the years. Nope. Not going to happen. I can’t buy an extra seat either since I am a person of size vertically and not horizontally I’ve tried many times. Even though I’ve had a companion pass for at least 5 years, I’ve found that I’m much happier buying 2 seats on another airline and 3 when my wife and dog fly along. I haven’t found another airline that won’t sell me two seats.

  5. There is another way to stop this: Ban both of them from the airline for life and sue them for the cost of the delay (i.e., staff time, fuel, etc.). Maybe even support other passengers who miss connections, etc., in suing them in small claims court.

  6. There was another scam that got caught where someone was selling their companion pass, even to other passengers at the gate. They book for their companion and check them both in. Other person uses a reservation under their own name to get through security and then refund it (or to credit). Then simply board the plane with the companion pass boarding pass. Or they’d make a booking and ask someone they thought would be a taker in the gate area if they’d like to fly for $40. Take the cash, show them how to cancel their own ticket for credit, and use the companion boarding pass to fly.

    That leads to some FBI/TSA possible enforcement action as individuals.

  7. Don’t worry, this won’t be an issue soon, after the CP goes away due to the new leadership that is incoming.

  8. Sometimes I used my companion pass for my friend, I was worried when we got closer to departure date since I didn’t feel well. At that time, the ticket was very expensive. Fortunately, I felt better. It was happening for wedding trip in Cancun

  9. I don’t understand the problem. You wrote the companion pass holder cancelled their own ticket. So both were canceled. People do cancel flights with it being no big deal.

  10. @ Al…
    THAT’S why SWA sucks? Because they let you take someone along for free for 2 years? If it wasn’t for that, my wife and I wouldn’t see family nearly as much.

  11. SW is not a bad airline. It says a lot about the airline when its employees like working for it. They smile.. Many other airlines UA, AA, Delta their EEs are miserable! Anyone abusing benefits should be banned by the airline no excuses. If this were an emergency they would have fixed the issue with the check in staff. It is obvious they were trying to game the system. SW seating is actually quicker to board a plane. I find it ridiculous when people have an assigned seat and they can’t seem to sit down quickly so the plane can take off! It takes people longer! I dislike people taking as much luggage as possible as carryon because airlines charge a fee. SW does not. So many people can’t even carry their own luggage on board and expect the flight attendants to do it – I agree with them they should not do it, that is what check in luggage is for. Can’t lift it don’t do carry on. With today’s technology it is easy that once people are seated that the flight attendant can then scan boarding passes again to add a name to the seat or one should do it on the TV screen/app once seated – easy fix. I see people switch seats all the time even with assigned seating. Gary why don’t you talk negative about Spirit or other airlines that REALLY are terrible to fly with. SW is not horrible, other airline EEs should take a lead from it and care about the customer. I have traveled with SW for years and their customer service is awesome. I dread calling Delta or UA’s customer service. I don’t live in a huge hub international airport so I do have to fly with the others but whenever I can choose SW I will.

  12. Couldn’t this happen simply if the paid ticket holder can’t fly for some reason and then southwest auto cancels the ticket since he didn’t show up. In that case, the companion pass holder could simply use the boarding pass of the paid ticket holder to enter the plane and it should be fine.

  13. I’m on my third year of Companion Pass, and I’m confused about how this would work… Southwest’s system will not allow me to change or cancel my ticket if my Companion has been added to that itinerary unless I first cancel the Companion ticket. So in order, for this to work, the sequence would have to be:

    1) Companion boards flight
    2) I cancel the Companion ticket in order to then be able to…
    3) Cancel my ticket

    Maybe I’m giving Southwest too much credit here, but it feels like step 2 should not be possible. Does their system really allow for a ticket to be canceled after that passenger has scanned in to board the flight???

  14. I love, love SW and even though i don’t have a companion fly free pass I don’t want them to change anything at all. I like the no prearranged sitting, I like the 2 luggages free, the staff has always been helpful. When you board, just find a seat, get as comfortable as you can under the circumstances and shut up. let the crew do their job.
    BTW how do I go about getting a companion fly free card? anybody please

  15. @elisa – i stopped checking bags about 30 years ago when all airlines simultaneously started losing my bags on 50% of my flights, and when not lost, going from 20 minutes to 60 minutes to deliver the bags

    the airlines charge for the higher-risk, low-efficiency service of checking bags, but don’t charge for the zero-risk, high-efficiency service of carry-on and overhead bin storage

    it’s me against you for that bin, and i hope i win, and you lose

    but if there is space i will gladly lift your bag in to the bin for you

    it’s not personal, but it is personal combat, everyone for themselves

  16. What, if anything, happens if you are the ticket holder and the companion no shows?

  17. Guys and their di*ks just get them in trouble. I’m sure the Companion was a dear stripper, um, I meant friend.

  18. “Southwest IT is not modern”

    Well, they had men in top hats doing long form multiplications every time someone checked in.

    Now they wear bowler hats.

    Modern enough for you?!

  19. “What, if anything, happens if you are the ticket holder and the companion no shows?”

    Nothing, aside from losing $5.60. Of course, the polite thing to do is cancel the companion. You get your $5.60 back and potentially someone on standby gets a seat or the airline gets to sell the seat.

  20. Can’t stand cheaters. The CP holder needs to be charged for the flight. Then have the CP revoked. Hopefully, this would discourage other slimy characters not to do it.

  21. Southwest isn’t going to let you use the CP for yourself. The idea behind CP is that people who fly Southwest a lot (e.g. for work) can sometimes take their spouse (or other companion) with them on trips, using an extra seat on the plane for some fraction of their trips. Not using an extra seat on every single trip they take just to have extra room. They’re never going to allow that.

    But, yeah, this is definitely a case of “why we can’t have nice things.” One would think that Southwest’s systems would just be programmed to refuse to cancel a ticket if the companion had already boarded. Seems like the fair thing to do. Then the ticket is paid for at the rate that was available at the time the flight was booked.

  22. SW should have entered the cabin and announced “Mr. Wendell Companion, please identify yourself.” If they had to review boarding passes, Wendell is no fly listed.

    I am becoming frustrated with the segment that thinks each new method of fraud/theft is a new hack.

  23. Here is an unintended consequence I have tried to highlight to Southwest for a year now. I have earned Companion Pass for ever. But when they introduced their Business Select fare they did not update their algorithm to give the companion a close enough boarding pass. So I would get A1, A2 etc and my wife would often get B or C boarding passes. I told gate agents, let’s split the difference and let both of us board after A30. Couple of them accused me of abusing the system! I have raised it with corporate and they said it can’t be fixed. As a technology consultant I would think it is a relatively simple fix for their IT. So I have told them I won’t pay them more for Business Select. They would rather lose that extra $100 per segment than fix it!

  24. @Vinnie I guess you haven’t been around here much. SW has no policy against saving seats, so just board first.

  25. They could update the terms and disallow refunds of the primary pax ticket if the companion flies. That way they reject Pax 1’s refund request and keep the fare paid.

    They do watch this stuff. I was split from my companion by a GA on AS, and AS ops contacted the flight to check to make sure we were both on there. We were, and it was a non issue

  26. It’s not surprising to see some people trying to make excuses for crooks! This is why honest people can get a break or nice things

  27. You can’t cancel the primary ticket unless you cancel the companion ticket first. So this article is fake news.

  28. Wait are you telling me they have removed the option to make yourself your companion and get an empty seat? That was definitely an option last time I did a thorough read of the terms and conditions about a decade ago. I think it was specifically marketed to COS so they didn’t have to pay the up front deposit for the second seat, but it was definitely a thing and definitely available to everyone.

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