Saving Seats On Southwest Airlines Infuriates Flyers

Southwest Airlines doesn’t have pre-assigned seats. It’s first come, first served. That means how early you board the plane matters – being one of the first on the plane gets you a wider selection of seats to pick from.

Frequently, once a passenger picks their seats, the games will begin.

  • If the plane isn’t going to be full, passengers will try to keep people from sitting down next to them, hoping for an empty middle seat beside them when the door closes. Crumple up tissues and put them on the seat, spread out into the middle seat to make it look like an uncomfortable choice, or place your bag or jacket there to make the seat look already occupied.

  • Some men, especially, will be open to certain passengers over others and try to game who their empty seat looks welcoming to. An attractive female boards and suddenly they clear out that middle seat! But it’s obvious they’re doing it and creepy.

  • There’s no rule about saving seats. Southwest doesn’t say it’s ok, but they do not say it isn’t ok. One person with an “A” group boarding pass and Noah’s Ark full of two of each type of passenger with a C boarding pass may wind up with aisle seats or seats together at the front of the aircraft.

The thing about saving seats for people with a lower boarding order is that it removes good seats from the available pool for those who paid for an earlier boarding number (such as a Business Select fare) or who earned it through loyalty to the airline over a year’s worth of ticket purchases (A-List and A-List Preferred).

Open seating on Southwest Airlines means Lord Of The Flies… or sometimes Thunderdome. That doesn’t work for everyone, but I actually like it.

  • I tend to buy tickets late – close to travel – and on many airlines that means the best seats are already gone. But with Southwest they’re still available.

  • In fact, when changing flights on the day of travel or getting rebooked due to a delay or cancellation, all of the seats on the plane are still available.

  • And you can play games to increase the odds of having an empty middle seat next to you, which is the difference-maker in having a great flight in coach.

Flying Southwest is different than flying other airlines, but is it funny that I actually like it? Not least of which because their seats have a couple more inches of legroom than standard coach on most other airlines, too, which means I can open my laptop on board without difficulty.

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. I ponied up for the premium “Business Select” fare. Once. But whenI see my A2 boarding position diluted by fake wheel chairs accompanied by entire families of “attendents”, I recognized I was a sucker. What’s more, a Business Select position on a connecting flight from Phoenix to Honolulu was a complete waste of money since the flight already had pax onboard and all desirable seats were already occupied by those who had boarded the flight from its original departure to PHX and onward to HNL and changed seats upon arriving at PHX.

    Southwest flights are generally full, so they couldn’t care less if their policy infuriates passengers. Passengers are nothing but cargo as far as Southwest is concerned. One thing that might create a change in this ridiculous policy will be when someone is injured or killed in an argument between one who insists on taking an empty exit row seat and one who is insistent on saving it.

    Bad publicity and a big time lawsuit against the airline. They pay attention to things like that.

    I’ll happily pay more on a real airline for an assigned seat of my choice in Premium Economy Business Class, neither of which is offered by Cattle Class Southwest.

  2. Stop crying. If you need a seat ask someone to save you a seat. There is no rule so hush and sit down so we can get to where we need to get to. So what if people are saving seats. Worry about yourselves and that’s it.

  3. My suggestion from witnessing some of the above..A-1 thru A-6 should be able to board before the pre-boarders. Should they want a bulkhead seats, it’s there’s. If I paid for or earned A-1 thru A-6, this would be acceptable.

  4. I had two elderly parents and Southwest was great with caring for their needs and getting them their last flight to their Florida care facility. I would not have been able to get them down on my own.

    But I too, have seen one person saving seats for the family. You purchase to get on at a better position in order to get a better seat. It seems like a breach of contract if that does not happen because others save seats.

    You purchase one ticket, one seat. Seems like a fight waiting to happen. And, I’d have to say, continuing with no policy with savings seats, yet the contract of getting a better seat for purchasing better boarding, is a fight waiting to happen. And Southwest is fully complicit.

    They also don’t guard against line jumpers. Those getting on earlier than their ticket deems.

    And have you seen Runway Jesus? 21 people get on with wheelchairs and only one person gets off with a wheelchair. And often those wheelchair bound people are fully able to get the luggage for them and those around you. Miracle healings!

    Southwest has set up some inflammatory policies. Let’s not hear how bad passengers are to flight attendants when all Hell finally breaks lose!

  5. Fake wheelchairs – very creative, but how many people really do this? I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than a handful of wheelchair preboards on any flight on any airline, including Southwest.

    Another point that comes to mind: other airlines have boarding policies that they then ignore. American has, what, 9 boarding groups, and United and Delta are similar. Not infrequently, agents don’t check very carefully – their goal is to get everyone to board on time, not (always) to police the boarding process. So people feel free to board with an earlier group. On Southwest, it’s harder for people to just ignore what’s on their boarding pass because they have to convince other passengers who’ve lined up that they belong where they are in the line. So one could make the argument that despite the seat savers and fake wheelchairs, Southwest’s process is, on the whole, more fair in that more people actually follow the rules.

  6. I travel with a walker, which I check, and use a wheelchair to board. I travel with my 2 grandchildren and couldn’t travel without them. So, please don’t judge everyone who pre-boards. An on my last flight to Boston the flight attendants were super helpful.

  7. Yes as a wheelchair user on SWA, I rarely had miracle flights happen, until covid. Now everyone needs a free ride down the jet way to get a front row seat, until they have to stow all belongings. But, they jump up and take off when they arrive at their destination. The worst were flights to Atlanta. One lady was running around getting food and drink for her momma and damn dog, who had it’s own chair. She had to have a wc to take her down the jet way. Then hopped up to help her momma get settled and put her luggage up.. Another time, sdf to hou, a very tall dude was wheeled down to waiting area, didn’t tip his driver. He got up a few minutes later and started walking to get food/drink. Came back and sat in chair, went to RR, then stood up to get on preboard, but they called for wc first. He jumped in front of everyone and said that was his wc and walked down. Everyone had their jaws hit the floor. Then when we arrived in hou, he jumped up and got everyone’s stuff from the overhead bin and was the first to run, yes, run up the jetway. These cheaters hurt those of us who need it. I understand ptsd, but this was not one of those cases.

  8. ,@Sherrelle Williamson. Saving seats for any event shows just how little you value yourself as well as others. This world is filled with jerks just like you who think the world owes you. If I ever want to sit in a seat someone has saved, and you won’t voluntarily give it up, I’ll 8demolish the place.

  9. My work team and I traveled SW for work. Not by choice but under the direction of management. We are all 6’3″ or more and the extra two inches or so in the emerg row really helps us from getting our legs crammed in other seats. We get the Bus Select and try for the emerg row seating because of leg room. However, three times now, A passenger with A-1 or A-2 saves all three emerg row seats. Another time, the A-1 or 2 saves BOTH rows of emerg row seats. EACH TIME, the FA says very little or nothing . The last time, the FA sided with the “Saving” passenger (in the emerg row) and told us he is saving seats. So, what happened to Open Seating. A-1 thru 5,..or more, should board first. There should be NO saving seats in the emerg row.

  10. What a ridiculous policy. Saving seats is so tacky and trashy. It’s like those nutty people at resorts who run down at 6am to throw towels on the loungers.
    I’ll never fly SW. I like to book and pay for the seat I want and have the flight attendant toss anyone who’s sitting in my seat. Why does everything have to be like Squid Game!

  11. When I’ve wanted the change seats on a half empty aircraft,the cabin crew say it’s not allowed.Their reasoning is that,should there be any sort of accident (they have a delicate way of putting that)then it will be impossible to identify anyone if they are not in their allocated seat and seat number.So how does that work on Southwest?

  12. I’ve had 2 spinal fusions and both hips replaced so I do make use of a wheelchair service, especially when I fly SW out of O’Hare. Their gates are in Terminal 5 which is a killer walk even for an able bodied 60 year old. Yes, they do give priority boarding but once I’m on the plane I hobble all the way to the back so I don’t clog up the isle during disembarkation. I can still walk but I’m a bit wobbly after a 4 hour flight. Some people just like to hurry up and then wait anyway. I move slow and have always gotten to baggage claim before the luggage arrives, LOL.

  13. You all seem very violent. Please don’t take Southwest I travel Southwest I have a note from the doctor about a broken knee cap. I don’t want somebody to punch me in the face some nice person you know what I mean because they want to sit in my seat, take a different airline when you could buy first class. OK enough shit in this world

  14. Recently flew SW to Denver. My Husband had a large brain tumor removed 4 months earlier. He looks wonderful but becomes easily fatigued and dizzy. He walks as much as he can, but certainly cannot make it through an airport independently. He did walk into the Airport with me and up to the check in desk. We had pre arranged wheelchair services to meet us there. When he received wheelchair service, I heard a woman LOUDLY say “look at him, he walks up to the desk then fakes needing a wheelchair”. I took a deep breath and walked directly to her and told her he recently had a brain tumor removed and wasnt it remarkable he was able to walk all the way up to that desk without the wheelchair. I said it just as loudly as she had made her comment, for everyone nearby to hear. Smiled my biggest smile and continued on my way. Don’t judge……. you never know what another person is going through.

  15. I am a wheelchair user who Always Flys SWA. I can walk, but have difficulty walking to the gate. I do get up and walk to the washroom or get a drink. After sitting on a plane for 4 hours I am so stiff I will opt not to take a wheelchair to baggage claim. I have proof I am handicap and sometimes feel we should have to show it. There were 10 wheelchairs on my last flight. And it is hard to know who actually needed them.

  16. Here’s what I’ll do the next time some 5’6” guy grabs the seat mid-cabin with no seat in front of him for his petite wife who hasn’t paid Early Bird like I did. I’m 6’8” tall but I’d insist that I take the middle seat in that row so I’d be the one sitting next to his wife. He can’t occupy two seats and he can’t save any. Checkmate! I get the legroom or he can’t sit next to his wife. Next time the cheapskate will buy two Early Birds.

  17. I was just at a flight where a woman sitting in the exit row, turned away three people because she told them she was saving the seat. They moved on. I talked to a flight attendant about it and he told me there was nothing he could do.

    I absolutely hate Southwest boarding policy with open seats. It is like a cattle car.

  18. I am in my 60s and have had quite a few surgeries along with physical therapy and acupuncture to keep walking. I fight not to be in a wheelchair but I do use a cane when I travel as extensive walking hurts.
    I also board early. I take longer to walk down the ramp and put away my carry-ons. Too many times I have either held up the speed of the others on the ramp or in the aisle trying to get settled. I always try for a window seat as I can’t always get up fast after sitting for a while and I don’t want to impose on someone trying to get past me to the bathroom.
    I guess that I don’t look disabled enough because I have had several Karen’s (always a 30 to 40s woman) comment on how I shouldn’t be preloading.
    Delta and Alaska Airlines have been great about it. Southwest…always a lecture on asking for a wheelchair.

  19. Re: Pre Boarding

    Charge those customers “ Business Select” add “Early Board 25.00”.

    You will see the results.

  20. Not all disabilities and handicaps are visible. Don’t judge until your 67yrs old with a blown out back from L1-S1 and can’t walk the long distances in the airport. Im in a wheelchair for a reason and yes could produce my handicap documentation if needed. No I don’t look my age and if it’s a good day I can get up and get some food or go to the restroom once I get to the gate. I sometimes travel with my single parent daugther and her children under age of 8 so yes I might also save a seat so the children could sit with me. She pays the early board fee. Stay kind…

  21. People’s should not judge know bc we look fine don’t mean we are. I was in the hospital in February for a week trying to get my heart rate to slow down I take medicine for it make my heart drop to low at times can’t walked to far I don’t like the wheel chair but had heart every since I was a baby

  22. I don’t understand why it’s so tacky for people to save seats. Americans are so weak and sensitive to the smallest things. No backbone to deal with these first world problems. There are situations in which saving seats is warranted. Other times not so. The ultimate blame goes to SW without having any regulations or guidelines.

  23. Get used to it. Selfish , rude , even petty criminal behavior was started a long time ago via bad or negligent parenting. Kids are all 30 something or more now.
    Look around you. The shoplifting problem we have now is sitting next to you. So why expect large companies to manage unethical people? Because it’s the cost of staying in buisness until it’s no longer profitable. ie Walmart and Target closings.Find a seat and sit. Fairness and ethics days are over.

  24. Southwest is a joke. Any passenger can request pre board which is not verified by the agents or reps. If your on a wheelchair you shouldn’t arrive at the gate with an overpacked suitcase which you cannot lift and expect the staff to do it especially when your traveling with an entire family to help and they usually don’t but also get to pre board. You also can ask for a free seat if you feel your fat enough to qualify again no questions asked. Being an A Lister is a waste of time as the exit row is already taken by thru passengers as well as the first 5-6 rows. The boarding process is crazy a pure cattle call and sh*t show. Why buy tickets to earn a status or purchase early bird to move up in the boarding group when everyone else will do whatever they want? No other airline has 55 wheelchairs waiting to board with one agent pushing chairs and dragging bags. That’s an unsafe situation. Most wheelchair passengers are overweight and do not care. Southwest needs to do better. But if you like the greyhound in the sky or cattle call circle atmosphere go for it! Just be ready to rumble.

  25. It is tacky and rude to save seats on SW. There is no other way to look at it. I think seat savers are so sensitive that they can’t take a 2 hr flight sitting next to a stranger. I find that weak.

  26. SW should just go to select your seat before you board. Or assigned seating based on your boarding group. If you’re boarding group A, you select your seat. All other groups are sit where you can find a seat. If you’re in a wheelchair, you get one caretaker. Unless you and your caretaker are in Group A – which would have an assigned seat, you get the seat you’re given by the attendant who helps you board. One parent per kid, unless you’re in Group A, you get the seat the attendant gives you. In both of these scenarios, you or you’re caretaker/kid are expected to sit in the middle seat, and no exit rows – unless you’re in Group A.

  27. Southwest Airlines is always my absolute last choice of airlines to use because they will not allow me the reserve a seat.

  28. My biggest issue is that after the A group boards, Southwest allows people with children to board before the B group. People with children should have to board according to their assignment of A, B, or C. Why is it fair if I have B2 but have to wait until 30 other people board before me? They don’t need to have special treatment because they chose to have kids.

  29. I don’t care when I board a sw flight. I look for the first space available to stick my backpack which is near an empty seat between a person not flowing over the armrests and the window, aisle, or another person not flowing over the armrests.
    Simple. I do get slightly upset over the knucklehead seat savers, but they’re like ants at a picnic.

  30. My husband and I head straight to the back row whether we have A or C boarding. We ‘re close to the bathroom and avoid the rush to get off the plane.

  31. When told a seat is saved for someone with a later group, I will sit there anyway and challenge them to try and move me. They have absolutely no recourse to move me. Suck it up buttercup and buy the required amount of earlier boarding!!!

  32. Douglas, not a smart move with me. Southwest always splits up me and my husband (Companion status) even though we book at the same time. Out of respect, I do choose the middle seat even though I board earlier, and offer the window to anyone passing by but keep the aisle for him. If someone were to try and claim the seat for my husband, who is a nervous flier, it would just not happen. And if someone were to just “sit there anyway”, I can assure you it would be a very uncomfortable flight for you. ‘oops I’m so sorry I just spilled my drink. Again.’ I do like to stretch too. Perhaps take off my shoes and let those dogs bark. Or.. you can just take the window and we all good.

  33. Until Southwest cracks down on the wheelchair dollies and their trash troubadours, I will fly Delta.
    The assigned seat alleviate that bull crap!

  34. I have MS and use my own wheelchair. My husband will board with me. Most of the time the gate agent(for Southwest Airlines) will make a point to get me first to board. We fly SW because of this, otherwise we’d pretty much have to buy 1st class on any other airline because I’m unable to walk.

    I do get dirty looks sometimes, especially from people who use an airport wheelchair to try and the the front seats with leg room. Heck, I’d give them my MS and boars like every one else.

  35. I was on a SW flight where a woman saved two exit rows for her friends in C boarding. The FA would not intervene, and a letter I sent to SW came back with the reply that it’s allowed. I have never flown SW again and never will. Vote with your dollars if you don’t like their policies.

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