Disingenuous New United Airlines Ad Takes On Southwest’s Boarding Process

United Airlines offers the worst ‘cheapest fare’ coach product of any of the major U.S. airlines. Unless you’re a co-brand credit card customer or elite:

  • Board last
  • Not allowed to bring a carry on bag on board (can’t even pay for one)
  • Not allowed to use online check-in if you aren’t checking a bag, you must do the check-in counter walk of shame.

Neither American Airlines nor Delta treats its Basic Economy customers this way. Southwest Airlines doesn’t even have non-changeable basic economy fares. All of their passengers can bring carry on bags on board. None of their fares have change fees. And customers even get 2 free checked bags. Oh, and Southwest Airlines coach has more legroom than United’s standard economy seats too.

Yet United is running an ad campaign attacking Southwest over its inflight product – because if you don’t have Rapid Rewards elite status, buy a premium fare, or pay for ‘Early Bird check-in’ you need to check in 24 hours prior to your flight to avoid being assigned one of the last boarding positions and therefore one of the last shots at picking a seat on board.

United does not allow basic economy passengers to select their own seat for free at all. And customers buying more expensive economy fares have limited options to choose seats without paying extra. United even has more boarding groups than Southwest does. And like United, you can pay for early boarding.

Southwest’s boarding process is a bit of a cattle car, since passengers need to line up at the gate half an hour before departure and their seat assignment depends on it. But they board 30 minutes prior to departure, not 35 or 40, and United’s boarding pens are no more humane.

Moreover Southwest’s policy of not pre-assigning seats means that the best seats are still available for last minute bookings and for passengers who change flights on the day of departure. Elites still board before boarding group B even if they switched flights at the last minute and couldn’t get an early boarding order. Southwest’s policy is equally great for families with small children, because if you have a lap infant and the flight isn’t full you’ll almost always wind up with a free seat for them. Family seating is easier to secure on Southwest than United – nobody wants to sit next to your kids but you.

The new United ad campaign is disingenuous in the extreme, and serves to highlight that United is less generous with non-status domestic coach passengers than Southwest is. Since Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags, you’re also less likely to have to gate check a carry on!

If you want to criticize Southwest, they do not have seat back TV (United promises it, but has been slow to deliver) and their internet has been slow (but it’s improving faster than United’s, which is frequently unusable).

Update: So disingenuous for United to say they ‘we let you choose your seat in advance’ with no asterisks, caveats, or fine print. Sounds like a DOT complaint waiting to happen.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. @Jim Baround – I do not think it is fair to characterize Southwest as having 6. Are you counting people who got off of a connecting flight and then get back on the plane, and then treating them as different than preboards? Quite the stretch.

  2. Well said I’m pretty sure United has the same number of middle seats. Also, many of the C group will get upfront seats like 2B, 4E, etc which are probably upgraded seats at United!

  3. Let’s not forget that United has further constrained seating options by blocking out “preferred” seats that only elites get to choose for free.

    Assuming you buy a “normal” economy ticket, I can choose from ONLY NINE rows in a 737-8 on United.

  4. Personally I prefer United’s system (though admittedly I have elite status and can board early if I want to). The most important thing is that I don’t want to have to line up early to get on the plane. For a domestic flight usually want to work until the lounge until just before boarding closes. Not sure about all the specific claims they’re making but it doesn’t seem outrageous to me for them to make the argument their system is better. I think it is ….

  5. Don’t forget @ Gary Leff, that United kicked Southwest’s butt in Newark with an equally disingenuous campaign venture. Southwest had to, then,“disingenuously “ leave EWR with their tale between their legs!! It’s going to be a bloodbath at DEN, and United will prevail in the end, make no mistake about it.

  6. I’ve never seen so many triggered travel bloggers over this harmless trolling by UA. Only at the three UA/SW hubs.

    And their main point holds…as a non-elite passenger who does not make a conscious choice to pay less for a basic economy seat, you have to check in at 24 hrs to ensure a good seat.
    A last minute anytime SW fare does not guarantee a good seat only business select.

  7. 1. Less than 5 minute wait to get in line. If an “A”, get in line as pre boards (handicap) are finishing boarding. Just go to your position and slip in. In fact if A 31 or higher, wait til A 25 is boarding and get in line.
    2. IF B, sit until A is almost done, then get in line. Etc.
    I never get into line and wait more than 5 minutes..
    As AA, UNITED. etc. have no sequence between Group # (and some groups are massive), large scrums form once boarding starts.

  8. Also: United Beats the Crap out of paying customers and drags them off the plane.
    Also: United Breaks Guitars

  9. The distinct boarding processes of United and Southwest work for some people but not for all. I personally abhor the SW model, but there are times when SW either offers the best routing or the best price and I reluctantly choose their ticket. I refuse to pay early bird, as in the past in spite of the upcharge, I am placed in the B category which means families with children who DID NOT pay the upcharge, are allowed to board before me. There is no limit to early bird sales, so theoretically, you can pay for early bird and still get into the C group.

  10. United’s system is better for 10% of the passenger’s and Southwest’s is better for the rest.

  11. When I’ve already saved hundreds in change fees, have my two bags checked for free, and my companion joining me for free with her free checked bags, busing a fraction of the points for a free ticket on United… I really could care less what the boarding procedure is. Southwest has me at “hello”! They have me at “Hello” silly goose.!

  12. You know you are doing something right when the competition complains about how you do business. I will never fly another airline other than Southwest – unless Southwest does not fly where I want to go.

  13. I used to be pretty loyal to Southwest. But I got sick of the boarding process and the general low-class people who fly WN. So I switched to United (I do live closer to O’Hare than Midway, though). The moment I got status, that was it. I became a loyal United customer.

    The only advantage I had on WN was the free wi-fi as A List Preferred. Now that United has hooked up with my carrier T-Mobile for free wi-fi, that advantage is gone. I’m 1K, I’m proud of it, and I love lording it over the rest of you when I get on during pre-board. And while you have to try to find a vacant seat by the gate, I’m in the nearest United Club relaxing with free food and drink. Try that on Southworst.

    I did give WN one final try, though. Shortly after they moved in to ORD, I decided out of novelty to try them again just to say I flew WN out of ORD. My flight back got affected by a Southwest network outage and I had to scramble for alternate arrangements out of an airport with very limited options (it was ISP in case you’re wondering). That was it for me. Never again. Keep your slum airline. I’m flying the Friendly Skies.

  14. YAWNNNÑ! I fly both UAL and SWA regularly. Each have advantages and disadvantages, and cannot be compared 1 to 1. My final choice for a trip comes down to schedule and pricing. I have Chase Visas with both airlines so I get those benefits; very worthwhile! Complainers will complain…

  15. Pompous Richard.

    Well. Everyone who reads your “me” post, including yours truly, are envious, in fact, jealous. You are fortunate and blessed.

    However, you had a good “save”, with your response, “My final choice for a trip comes down to schedule and pricing. I have Chase Visas with both airlines so I get those benefits; very worthwhile!”

    In fact, I would believe, myself included, will make our decision, based on schedules and pricing. Who in their right mind, wouldn’t?

  16. Ken is exactly right SW has allowed anyone claiming “family” status to board next after “A” boarding has completed. If you are traveling alone, you may be in the “B” group but find yourself one of the last passengers to board, even though you paid more for your ticket than people who boarded ahead of you Until SW cracks down on this abuse of their boarding process, they deserve all the scorn and ridicule directed at them.

  17. I only fly United and achieved Gold through work trips. The people who buy Basic Economy or don’t buy their way into Group 1 or 2 are in for a lousy time.

    By the time Global Service, 1K, and Group 1 boards, there is a 50-50 chance that the rest of people in the back of plane won’t have overhead space.

    United is absolutely the haves and have nots, and without elite status or buying up to Economy Plus, the experience looks horrendous.

    If I didn’t have the perks I do, I’d probably never fly them. They’re simply geared toward business and elite fliers.

  18. “Only fly United”! Hmmm.

    I have been traveling for business, since 1970, and now, I am CEO/Chairman of my hospitality company. That certainly doesn’t qualify me as an expert, but allows me to speak, as a well-traveled individual.

    I am humored at ALL the stories, from other travelers who tell of their experiences. It’s amazing.

    I believe in a good deal, as much as the next person. However, and maybe I am missing out, but I don’t believe that is the case.

    Allow me to explain. Loyalty programs, points, RESTRICTIONS, schedules, who’s the best, yadda, yadda. It makes me think, everyone, on different programs, can’t have the “BEST” one. That’s impossible. It’s the best one, for THEM! Which begs the question, “WHY”? How can they be so committed?

    Perception! Small print! What floats their boat, or airplane as it were? And, when I read, daily, what loyalty programs do to their paying members; read daily, lawsuits filed (that includes THE POINT GUY who created the program), and hourly complaints all over the world, from those who participate in these programs, with compelling, real life stories, I am never surprised. And just as I think, I have heard it all, the next article, gets worse. SOUND FAMILIAR?

    Yesterday, the article about the Hilton Del Coronado on this blog. Amazing! Previously, I worked for Hilton and the San Diego Convention Bureau, and was appalled at what guests were charged for. Who in their right mind, would stay there? The grand dame, Del Coronado is storied, deep in History. But having to pay for towels, etc., is not “regal”!

    Using one airline, may work for the author of his post. Good for him. Possibly, he has limited destinations, that afford him that luxury.

    Now, I am not going to divulge sensitive information, about myself that will put smiles on most readers faces.

    I am not, nor have I ever been, in a point program, or Loyalty program! You ask why? After evaluating, all the programs, I realized, after putting the numbers in my over 50 year experience brain, the only winner, is the one, offering the programs!

    FYI:. Years ago, I use to fly First Class all the time, and was paid for, by my then, employer. Of course, none of these magical programs existed.

    I fly routinely, offshore, to Europe, Asia, and south, to numerous destinations in the Caribbean and South America.

    Yes, you may get to a destination, on the airplane, 25-50′ faster than me. And most definitely, have a more comfortable seat and Fed food and drinks. But I can count, on two hands, the times I was uncomfortable, and NEVER had a problem with overhead luggage. Recently, I was returning from Armenia, and Qatar Airways, lost my luggage, that I didn’t receive, for 14 days, and they never compensated me, for my loss.

    P.S. I am 6’4″, weight 265 #.

    Here’s the kicker. My hospitality company, will never participate in any aforementioned programs. Instead, our incentive, is to discount our guest rooms, on the very next stay, in any one of our properties. Instant, cash return. Don’t have to count your points, and wait to discover, you earned a free night. And, every time you use any of our properties, you get a bigger discount, to the max., which remains at the max, for every subsequent stay.

    Let’s just say, we offer cash discounts, versus points, that may never be redeemed. Our program, works for EVERYONE, EVERYTIME, not just for frequent travelers.

    FACT: “ALL’ our guests, will be, “OUR”, LOYAL and dedicated members, by definition. We don’t use the hype words, or points, to attract and keep members. Ours is not considered a “program”. Rather, we consider everyone, as the same. We don’t, stereotype our guests.

    Whether you take one trip a year, or a frequent traveler, our program, rewards everyone, with spendable, cash discounts for every stay!

  19. Regarding whether UA has five boarding groups and SWA has six.

    Another way to look at this is that SWA could have as many as “175 boarding groups.” This assumes no pre-boards, and none of the others who board between A and B. The problem with other carriers is that everybody is in this shapeless amoeba and people cheat the system and board ahead of their group. The GAs at these non-SWA carriers don’t enforce boarding groups. I have flown SWA approx. 20 times and I have only had one time where the GA allowed people who were B58-60 muscle their way ahead of B31. I have even been on flights where the GA announced that people trying to do that would be told to get back in line.

    That’s the thing I like about SWA — there is never a question of who boards when. I know exactly the person who is ahead of me in line and exactly the person who is directly behind me. I’ll take that process over the shapeless amoeba any day. With the shapeless amoeba, the GA can’t tell if one group is finished so it’s easy to follow the path of least resistance and let people cut in line.

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