Southwest Airlines doesn’t pre-assign seats. Instead it’s “first come, first served” so how early you board the aircraft determines what’s available for you to pick from.
I don’t really like this myself because it means I first need to have a low boarding number, and second that I have to board early instead of grabbing some food or working as late as possible once I get through security. At Southwest you want more time on the plane, not my preferred less time.
Southwest boarding positions are lettered A, B and C and within each letter group numbers range 1-60. Families with small children can board between groups A and B.
A reader who found themselves with boarding order C11 asked how this is possible — and wondered if Southwest was giving this to them because their algorithms show they’d be likely to ‘buy up’ at the gate to A1 – 15 boarding?
My suspicion for me is this:
They know I regularly buy up when I have a B or C # so they automatically give me a high # to get me to buy an A1-15.
I hate to think this way but [Southwest] I assume, can be as mercenary as the next guy. So, I’m wondering are they using big data against me?
They were flying Orlando – Phoenix on a $560 roundtrip ticket and paid for early bird check-in. Even though Southwest doesn’t have seat assignments, they make money on customers who want better seats by selling them an improved boarding position.
And while it’s pretty sneaky if you think Southwest would first charge $15 or more for early bird check-in and give a low boarding order knowing a passenger would again pay to jump the queue in the A1 – A15 position (if available), what’s going on seems a lot simpler than this.
- Southwest puts its business select (and those who pay to upgrade to business select boarding) first.
- Then there are each of their two tiers of elites.
- Then there’s everyone paying for early bird check-in who gets a boarding order number ahead of those checking in 24 hours in advance of departure.
Everyone else is going to be ordered based on time of check-in.
And even paying for early bird check-in means it’s possible to get a low boarding position because everyone else on the plane could be ahead of you or have paid for early check-in too.
Heavy business travel times are going to have a disproportionate number of (1) full fare, (2) elite, and (3) early bird check-in customers who can have those fees reimbursed. The very fact that this isn’t a super cheap ticket suggests to me that there are likely plenty of folks paying the higher fares or seeing an extra ~ $15 for check-in as a small percentage of their total trip cost.
Before I earned status with Southwest last year (I’m a regular on their DC-Austin flight, the only non-stop in the market by law – thanks to the perimeter rule) I found that flight pushed me down pretty low in boarding even paying the $15 (B60 was not uncommon). However on most flights doing so would put me in the low Bs and even occasionally high As.
Southwest Airlines still doesn’t operate redeye flights, something their old systems had challenges with. Their old reservation system made it difficult to differentiate their schedule based on days of the week. They do not offer all possible connections for sale. I do not believe they have the kind of individualized – probably Ai – data analytics that would allow them to customize boarding and incentivize extra revenue necessary in the manner suggested.
If you do find yourself to be the kind of Southwest flyer who wants to buy up to A1 – A15 boarding for choice of seats it’s notable that the new premium Southwest card gives you a $75 travel credit with the airline each year; 20% back on in-flight drinks, WiFi, messaging, and movies; and four upgraded boardings per year when available (when A1-15 boarding positions are offered at the gate, buy it and you’ll receive a statement credit for the charge).
Spending on the card counts towards the 110,000 points you need for a companion pass. So does the card’s initial bonus offer. Traveling with a companion is interesting, whether via companion pass or just paying two tickets in points or cash.
Currently elite boarding privileges do not extent to companions. However Southwest does not have a rule against saving seats. (I’ve heard Southwest is looking at extending boarding privileges to other passengers on the same reservation.) When my wife and I travel I will board early, grab seats for us, and let her know where to look for me on the aircraft.
I’ll also ask whether the flight is sold out or not, and if not strategize to make sure we have the middle seat empty between us. Some go so far as to spread out tissues on the empty seat to scare away potential seatmates. I am not nearly that mercenary.