Does Southwest Give Lower Boarding Priority to Customers They Know Will Pay Up?

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.

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. @Gary, I love the blog and your opinion on most things air-travel, but was disappointed to read this: “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 don’t fly Southwest too often, but people who employ that tactic really, really annoy me. Reading you espouse that technique and encouraging others is simply ridiculous. That seat next to you is not yours to save!

  2. I guess that is possible but I don’t think I have ever had worse than a low B seat assignment when buying early bird. Maybe the reader bought it just before the 24 hour point, but I’m still surprised. I would just ask for my money back on that one.

  3. I am 100% positive that Spirit’s “random” seat selection is not random at all, and they absolutely 100% give customers a worse seat if they are more likely to pay to upgrade to a better seat.

  4. Interesting that paying for early-bird check in still resulted in a “C” boarding position. My thoughts are:
    1. for one reason or another a significant majority of travelers on that flight (at least 100) also paid for early bird before this traveler did and your position in early bird is only as good as your opaque rankings. This is one reason I don’t find value in early bird. If 100 people bought it before me what is the value in me paying extra to end up with a C boarding pass?

    2. There were many people on the MCO-PXH flight that were connecting in MCO onward to PHX and therefore they snagged seat assignments, early bird or otherwise at check in for their first flight of the day, gaining a head start on check-in opening over the passengers just starting their journey in MCO.

  5. @George-Do you think they should sit separately? No, saving seats may be annoying, but as he states, it is allowed (for now) by the airline and when one has status and the other doesn’t, what else SHOULD they do? Sit apart? When it is as simple as “saving” a seat for your spouse/partner? I mean, let’s be real, all seats on SW are pretty much the same crappy coach seats so who is he hurting except maybe someone who REALLY wanted that middle seat? He could pay for her to have priority boarding but apparently it won’t matter because they line up by numbers and he could be A1 and she A15 potentially putting 13 people in her seat. This is the ONE THING I really HATE about Southwest is not being able to do seat selection in advance!

  6. @George +1
    @Gary – Just because something is not against the rules doesn’t make it right. Or would you be ok with the person next to you clipping their toenails with their feet pressed against the bulkhead?

  7. Pretty surprising to get a “C” boarding position with early-bird check-in. I don’t think I’ve every gotten worse than a “B” checking in at the 24-hour mark. FWIW, I’ve never paid for a better boarding position.

    Something you don’t mention is connecting passengers who check in for their connections 24 or 36 hours before the departure of their first flight. If you’re originating in a hub then, depending who’s connecting to that flight, a significant portion of the plane may be eligible to check in before you.

  8. It just depends on the flight. That Orlando flight mentioned is always ridiculous because it’s got so many connections, and you get boarding position on additional legs at the time of your first check in, which might be easier than others for the same flight. My wife flies southwest for business and most flights are fine, but certain ones going into and out of Phoenix and Vegas are always impacted and always packed to the gills with people making connections in those cities, and getting to Orlando from the west coast sucks so Southwest is a popular option due to cost

  9. It could be that certain passengers are processed with a 2-3 second computer delay so that their boarding order is worse. They could then say that they don’t select passengers to have a bad boarding order.

  10. If you are flying out of Orlando then don’t bother with Early Bird. It puts you after family boarding. In Orlando a huge amount of the passengers are “families with small children”. They board after A group and before B group. Between that, Business, A-List, and the cheaters that have “emotional support animals” (or the people that are “handicapped” when they get on the plane but are amazingly cured and able run off the plane from their front few rows when the plane stops) there aren’t many seats left. Don’t waste your money on EB. Try to be there early and pay for A 1-15. Maybe pay for one or two and save seats for others in your party. With SW high prices these days I think I would just pick another airline if you don’t have companion passes.

  11. There’s nothing wrong with Gary “saving a seat” for a companion. Everyone, including the airline, is gaming this boarding process. If you want to be holier than thou and get worse seats, go ahead. No one else will care.

    As far as giving a lower boarding number to folks who would be more likely to buy up, I’m incredibly skeptical. I’d put the odds at about 1%. First, it would be an evil thing to do. WN usually isn’t evil. Second, WN is known for below-average computing capabilities. I would be amazed if they could process the necessary algorithm.

  12. This is seemingly becoming an issue on flights to Hawaii (at least for me). On the two I’ve taken so far, checking in exactly 24 hours ahead of time got me B57 and C03. Combine that with like 40 people boarding between A and B because they have kids under 6, and others saving seats and I’ve been lucky to grab one of the last couple non-middle seats in the very back on each flight.

    It’s making me re-consider whether I want to fly WN to HI in the future. At this point, I’m checking my bags just because I don’t want to have to pass over an open seat because I need to find overhead space somewhere else. Combine that with needing to make sure my schedule is clear exactly 24 hours before my flights and having to be at the gate early and I’m starting to think I’d rather pay a premium for AS or HA.

  13. @Gary, can you please provide the link to Southwest’s policy explicitly allowing one to save a companion seat. Is there a limit on the number of seats you can save?
    @Penny, I absolutely think they should sit separately or they should board together with the higher number and sit together in a ‘worse’ section of the plane. This blogger has no problem giving up his higher selection number to sit with his wife: https://www.pointswithacrew.com/can-save-seats-southwest-airlines-seating/
    This blog links to passengershaming tweets/Instagram often. Isn’t this is another example of on-board behavior that you feel isn’t shameworthy, but other folks might? I also think ‘saving’ a seat goes against Southwest’s ‘open’ seating policy, but as you say, Southwest doesn’t see a contradiction.

  14. @Sco Because connecting flights are getting those boarding positions before your 24hr window. Sucks, but that’s how Southwest does business. You’re better off flying from the connection through Oakland than from Oakland direct to Hawaii for boarding position. Get an Alaskan Airlines credit card and use your $99 once yearly companion fare for Hawaii.

  15. @Gary –

    “I have to board early instead of grabbing some food or working as late as possible once I get through security”

    I would love to be that casual business traveler that strolls onto the plane with 5 minutes to spare, but the arms-race for carry on bag space for every flight turns me into a gate louse jumping in the queue 15 minutes before boarding begins. Do you check bags? Do you always fly in 1st class cabin and know there will be space for you?

    I’m United Platinum so even if I jump in at the end of group 1 – which now includes Golds – I would have to put my bag mutliple rows behind my seat and play that fun leapfrog game with deplaning passengers…

    I would really love “reserved” carry on bag space, or 1 seat:1 bin space. Not just like on AA 737Max’s where the ratio is there, but literal reserved space, so that jerks in 34B can’t throw their bag up above row 10 because they think they can.

  16. I have never flown Southwest. Every now and then I checked fares and they’re hardly cheaper. Reading how convoluted their boarding procedure is, I doubt I ever will.

  17. If you’re “saving” a seat that I want, I’m sitting there if I get there first. If you don’t like that, you’ll be the one that moves.

  18. Can you please provide the link to Southwest’s policy explicitly allowing one to save a companion seat. Is there a limit on the number of seats you can save?
    @Penny, I absolutely think they should sit separately or they should board together with the higher number and sit together in a ‘worse’ section of the plane. This blogger has no problem giving up his higher selection number to sit with his wife: https://www.pointswithacrew.com/can-save-seats-southwest-airlines-seating/
    This blog links to passengershaming tweets/Instagram often. Isn’t this is another example of on-board behavior that you feel isn’t shameworthy, but other folks might? I also think ‘saving’ a seat goes against Southwest’s ‘open’ seating policy, but as you say, Southwest doesn’t see a contradiction.

  19. WOW, are you blocking my comments? I’ve tried to post twice now and they’re not showing up after being submitted…

  20. @Gary, please provide the link to Southwest’s policy explicitly allowing one to save a companion seat. Is there a limit on the number of seats you can save?
    @Penny, I do absolutely think they should sit separately or they should board together with the higher number and sit together in a ‘worse’ section of the plane. This blogger has no problem giving up his higher selection number to sit with his wife: https://www.pointswithacrew.com/can-save-seats-southwest-airlines-seating/
    This blog links to passengershaming tweets/Instagram often. Isn’t this is another example of on-board behavior that you feel isn’t shameworthy, but other folks might? I also think ‘saving’ a seat goes against Southwest’s ‘open’ seating policy, but as you say, Southwest doesn’t see a contradiction.

  21. @Gary, can you please provide the link to Southwest’s policy explicitly allowing one to save a companion seat. Is there a limit on the number of seats you can save?
    @Penny, I absolutely think they should sit separately or they should board together with the higher number and sit together in a ‘worse’ section of the plane. This blogger has no problem giving up his higher selection number to sit with his wife: pointswithacrew /can-save-seats-southwest-airlines-seating/
    This blog links to passengershaming tweets/Instagram often. Isn’t this is another example of on-board behavior that you feel isn’t shameworthy, but other folks might? I also think ‘saving’ a seat goes against Southwest’s ‘open’ seating policy, but as you say, Southwest doesn’t see a contradiction.

  22. @George, most blogs submit comments containing links to manual review as an anti-spam measure which invariable delays their appearance.

    Did you really think Gary or someone else was sitting around, waiting for your comments, and deleting them?

  23. So some people pay $ to move up in line, but some of you see no problem with skipping in front of them by taking extra seats? Curious how many seats you feel justified saving.

    I haven’t flown SW since back in the day when first physically in line was first to board. I have no desire to fly with them any time soon after hearing about what a zoo this new boarding process is. It seems it can even turn “thought leaders” into line cutting savages.

  24. I’ve heard them announce that you can’t save seats, but that could be FAs making up rules.

  25. My MO on Southwest is: If someone asks for the seat next to me, it’s theirs. Full stop.

    This probably puts me in the minority, but air travel is already unpleasant enough, why make it harder for people? My SO and I don’t need to sit together all the time. We see plenty of each other at home. 😀

    (And from a sheer fairness perspective, if someone hustled or paid for an A52 boarding assignment, they’ve earned a better seat than my C18 partner who wasn’t as on top of it.)

  26. I used to fly Southwest.

    Saving seats isn’t allowed but I had a solution that worked pretty effectively.

    1. Board the airplane early, find the seat/rows youaand your companion want.
    2. Take a bottle of water and moisten your face, GENEROUSLY.
    3. Breathe in and out, HEAVILY.
    4. When other passengers are boarding, give them cross eyed heavy stares with a lock jacked/lip face.

    Most regular people will avoid sitting next to you. Be sure to bring a few extra napkins to clear your face once boarding has completed. If there’s a single empty seat on the plane, it will almost certainly be in your row.

  27. I may be in the minority here, but I agree with @George. Saving a seat for your significant other who is behind you is ethically improper. Instead, go back in line to the number where your SO is, and tell the person in front of your SO that he or she can go up to your better number. Everyone is happy. No ethical dilemma!

  28. Count me as one who doesn’t get the adoration for Southwest
    Probably because they go almost nowhere from MSP, and because I hate when boarding is a zoo

    I’ve priced them out and they are Delta level expensive from MSP, plus you have to connect and no seat

    Maybe they’re cheaper in other metros

  29. So, if all window and aisle seats are occupied, and all empty middle seats are ‘reserved’, and if I checked in early and paid for priority boarding, but was delayed due to a late SWA connection, must I:
    A) Remain standing
    B) take a later flight
    C) thank Gary and his wife for saving my seat and start a nice long conversation about people who wear headphones to create a virtual personal space?
    If I ever fly Austin to DC, I’m looking for that middle seat. Then I will post selfies onto VFTW using Gary’s password, or better, using his computer when he isn’t looking.
    Seriously, I am glad to know I am not the only one unaware of SWA policy. One thing that neither logical nor illogical brains can comprehend is the official SWA boarding ‘policy’.

  30. @Ken Crounse:

    I’m torn between wanting to patiently educate you about the wide range of disabilities in the real world on the one hand, and on the other hand wanting to scream at you for your disparaging, uninformed, nasty comment about people with disabilities. You wrote:

    “or the people that are ‘handicapped’ when they get on the plane but are amazingly cured and able run off the plane from their front few rows when the plane stops.”

    There hundreds, maybe thousands, of types of disabilities. Most do not involve lower body impairment:

    — Some people have orthopedic limits in their upper bodies such as damaged neck disks, so cannot use a middle seat because they must have the certainty of at least one arm rest to help balance the weight of their heads.

    — Some people have mental disabilities and need to board early because it takes them longer to get situated; without earlier boarding, they can end up delaying the whole flight while everyone waits for them to settle in.

    — Some people have a medical need to use the restroom often or without warning or both, so need to be at the very front or back of the plane.

    — Some people have medical conditions that create a need to be closer to flight attendants.

    I could rattle off a long list of realistic possibilities but it would span pages. Instead, I encourage you to go to a library or use the Internet to research disabilities. You’re old enough to write a snarky comment about people with disabilities, so you’re enough to educate yourself so you won’t reveal such utter ignorance in the future. If you’re lucky, you’ll also learn to have some compassion. Or perhaps you’ll continue to think that people with disabilities should stay home so they won’t inconvenience you.

  31. Gary is not wrong by saving a seat. Southwest is wrong. Just let pax choose seats. The whole process is bad and only has potential to create problems. Seems like more work for everyone to do it this way.

  32. Lynne says:

    Lynne
    I don’t know why I give my input on these things. It just leads to people taking things the wrong way.
    I fully support people with disabilities that need the services. It’s normally pretty obvious. We have relative that fits that description. I’m talking about the fakers that take advantage of the system. I’m sure you have seen them. They get on the plane in pre-boarding with some supposed disability and then they are amazingly racing to get off with no apparent issues. Or the people with the emotional support animals. Seeing eye dogs I totally agree with but this emotional support thing is something that I think people are taking advantage of A LOT. You put a tag on your dog that says “Emotional Support” so your pet flies for free and you get to pre board? I call BS on it. Call me an A-Hole but I speak the truth. It is getting abused and taking spaces from people with real disabilities.

  33. “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.” ~

    “Grab seats”……that sounds rather mercenary.. —- As noted above, just because it’s not against the rules doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

  34. @Ken Crounse

    Thank you for responding. But … you’ve missed the point, which is that YOU do not know why a person needs pre-boarding. It is NOT “normally pretty obvious,” as you say. Can you see heart disease? Can you see a transplanted organ? Can you see arthritis? Most of the time, you cannot.

    To the point: A person might have a disability that in no way limits the ability to rush off the plane. A person may genuinely need pre-boarding and still be able to leave the plane quickly. Not all disabilities cause mobility impairments. I gave you several examples. Here’s another one: I know a man born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. His ability to think and reason is seriously impaired. It can take him 20-30 minutes to figure out how to store his carry-ons and put on a seat belt. These are overwhelmingly difficult tasks for him. So he pre-boards when flying, and does so legitimately. This man is also is also a superior athlete – not for sports requiring planning and strategy, but for things he can do mostly on his own: swimming, weight lifting, marathons, etc. By your logic, if he is able to rush off the plane, then he doesn’t have a disability. That is simply not true.

    Yes, there are scammers in the world, in all aspects of life. But people with disabilities often have a very difficult time doing ordinary things that most people do with ease. Better to blame the airline’s boarding policies than people who may be struggling with routine tasks. For example, airlines and other businesses could require passengers to provide certification that their animal is a trained service or support animal. (And how does someone using a service or support animal affect you, anyway? Unless you’re allergic to the animal or have a phobia, it would seem irrelevant to your travel options.)

    By the way, there is no finite number of airplane seats for people with disabilities. Nobody is “taking spaces from people with real disabilities.” There is no limit on how many people with disabilities are allowed to pre-board.

  35. Get this- for my most recent flight, I checked in 24 hours ahead on the dot, and got B13. By husband waited until 4 hours before the flight, and got A25. Something is DEFINITELY up. Oh- and I’m the one with the SW credit card.

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