The Dark Side of Pre-Boarding: How Scammers Get the Best Seats on Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines lets passengers pick their own seats once they’re on board the aircraft. The earlier you board, the better choice of seats you have.

And Southwest allows passengers with disabilities to preboard, before those paying for business select (“A1 – A15” boarding positions) and elite frequent flyers. They’re given a boarding pass that says PRBD and can be accompanied by another passenger. (If you just need extra time, they’ll give you an XT boarding pass and let you board before family boarding, between A and B groups.

This is largely on the honor system, and as we know most people lack honor. This passenger complains that they paid for the most expensive Business Select fare which ostensibly means being one of the first 15 passengers to board, and they weren’t even in the first 50 to board.

Here’s another Southwest Airlines preboard perplexed passenger:

Some unscrupulous people request wheelchair assistance at the airport when they don’t need it, using their ‘injury’ for a whole bunch of benefits:

  • Early boarding gets them access to overhead bin space before other passengers, and avoids being forced to gate check bags.
  • It also gets around basic economy restrictions at United which are enforced by boarding group, netting a free carry on bag.
  • On Southwest they’d have their choice of seats on board.
  • Plus help skipping security lines.

But this isn’t a “miracle” or “Jetbridge Jesus” flight where 50 people in wheelchairs board (getting them pre-boarding and first choice of seats) and not a single one of them needs wheelchair assistance when they arrive.

Instead it’s a flight where people flag themselves as having a disability needing to preboard (preboard, first choice of seats) without wheelchairs. That’s the more respectful way to do it – they aren’t taking wheelchairs, or using the time of employees to assist them, that should be going to someone in actual need. They aren’t also making people wait for wheelchair assistance on top of securing early boarding.

The phenomenon is most common on Southwest Airlines because it doesn’t just mean assistance through the airport, it also means a better seat on board. So when we see a large lineup of wheelchairs, it’s more likely to be for a Southwest Airlines flight than for another carrier.

Southwest could solve this by asking those who are able not to take aisle seats, because someone with mobility issues won’t want to have to get up to let people into the window or middle seats, and also not to take the first several rows of the aircraft.

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. We ran into this on a flight many years ago. We were first in line to board, and there were two elderly couples who pre-boarded and sat in the emergency exit row seats. When we boarded, we asked the flight attendant how it was possible that we were first in line to board and the exit row seats were already taken. She asked the older couples whether they pre-boarded. They insisted they had A seats and were first in line, but our boarding passes had markings that proved we were first in line. They were forced to move. I think that was the last time I flew Southwest. Flying is stressful enough without having to line up and run to seats like kindergarteners. My absolute last choice for an airline.

  2. I know there are scammers but there are also reasons that are not always obvious.
    One key example of this are nut allergies and auto immune issues that mean folks need/want to wipe down clean their seats/row (especially on southwest where a flight is often not cleaned since it’s “continuing”). Doing this in the regular time can slow down everyone else as it takes longer to clear the aisle, etc. Similarly folks who can walk fine but lifting will slow things down etc.
    But I will add this goes back to the southwest process no longer works in multiple ways. It is stressful for everyone (including those genuinely needing preboards) and chaotic in such situations and NEVER enough room to actually line everyone up and often rushed since they are are not accurately spaced which also means more people need to pre-board because what you can do in a normal amount of time with a standard process on a properly cleaned airline won’t likely happen on Southwest. And pre-board in this situation should be limited to one accompanying assistant (and any children under the age of 12 or so).

  3. Mark had the answer.
    Simple solution, pre-boarders are only allowed to sit in the last rows on the plane. First on, last off.

  4. Ron
    The reason real preboards – like me – cant use the back of the airplane is that just the short distance from the wheelchair to a seat is very difficult. I see lots of wheelchair scammers and handicap parking scammers but it doesn’t change the fact that many of us really do need help.

  5. Southwest should start booking seats: but only for those who claim a disability at booking and request extra help–or time–boarding. Those seats need to be priced competitively: with all of the least popular seats available at no extra cost for those claiming disabilities, but with appropriately augmented prices for more desirable seats, just as is available to the general public. Those traveling with them (on the same itinerary) could be offered to book proximate seats, again competitively priced. (It’s the American way!) Then, before Southwest charges the general public higher prices for higher boarding priority, it could offer seating charts showing the seats already taken by disabled passengers and their families, so the prudent shopper can be adequately informed.

  6. The absolute worst thing about the scammers is that they are taking resources away from people who actually require them. I’ve been on so many flights recently where the flight attendants have made announcements that people who require wheelchairs to deplane will have to wait because there are an extremely limited supply available.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but SW needs to figure it out.

  7. Teena -I have to say that in all of my years I have never heard/read a more idiotic, stupid post. You blame Southwest for the actions of 2 couples who sat in the wrong seats – an act that was remedied by the flight attendant. As a result you now pay for checked luggage, assigned seats and higher airfare – all because of the action of others. I want to know how what these people did was Southwest’s fault. You take the prize…

  8. There should be medical documentation of a disability required to be shown on request with people over X age (obvious seniors) exempt from the requirement. That way if airlines come across someone who appears to be a faker they can request documentation. It is simply unfair to everyone else to allow these abuses to continue. In the alternative for people with disabilities that require early boarding pre-assign them seats upon producing documentation at checkin.

  9. Yet another reason not to fly those ghetto airlines. Southwest? Frontier? Spirit? No thanks. I’m better than that.

  10. I flew Southwest a couple weeks ago. Pd to get A7 boarding position yet at least 30 people boarded before me- lots of wheelchairs. Upon arrival, only two people used the wheelchairs to depart

  11. As a person with a visual impairment, these comments leave me feeling heartbroken and less than human. Although, I am not completely blind, my corneas are cone-shaped, so I see the world distorted, like a kaleidoscope or funhouse mirror, and I use a white stick to keep me grounded on the tilty floors. I also see double and triple, so airport crowds are exhausting for me. Because of this, I always order a wheelchair as a way of getting through the airport safely and sanely. Once at the gate, I no longer need the chair and can use my white stick to help me board and get to my seat. Preboarding is such a blessing to me because I can take my time, not be jostled about and have my white stick kicked out from under me. I always sit toward the front of the plane because there is no pre-disembarking and again, I don’t want to try to manage while being jostled when I leave. I get some odd looks once on the plane because I no longer use my white stick to move around the cabin because I can touch the back of seats to guide me to the bathroom and, with my special glasses and big font, I can read. I can feel the resentment from folks as we are seeing here in the comments, who might make the assumption that I’m some great actor scamming them out their rights to expediency and comfort.

    What you people need to know is that living with a disability makes every single thing more difficult every single moment of every single day, and we are grateful for anything that can lessen that burden for a minute, an hour or a flight. To suggest that we should be herded, like some kind of undesirables or lesser humans, to the back of the plane is painful to read and brings to mind a time when “get to the back of the bus” was the requirement for other groups seen as less than human.

    I don’t have the answer for how to stop people from scamming, but I know that it does not include treating everyone with a disability as some kind of lesser being, not worthy of any “perks.” When you see that group of people with wheelchairs, the answer might be for you all to pause a moment and feel grateful that you do not have a disability nor a heart wicked enough to use it as a scam. With gratitude and mercy in your hearts, you might find your flight, indeed your, life a much more pleasant experience.

  12. Yes it has gotten bad and needs to ne addressed. I agree with the suggestion above, preboarders should sit at the back of the aircraft. Bussiness select is a paid perk and those customers should be granted every opportunity to get that prime seat. Either that or start assigning seats. That would stop alot of the craziness. Last time I flew southwest it was a full flight and I had a B boarding position yet I was one of the last on board due to the amount of preboarders. In the past B boarding position would still be able to get me a window seat, now it’s like playing the lottery. I rather purchase my preferred seat in advance to avoid the headache and rat race.

  13. Not only is pre-boarding an issue but saving seats is also a problem. One member of the party buys A group while others members of their party don’t. Just to save seats for their co travelers.

  14. I was a flight attendant years ago. We used to laugh that we ran a hospital ship between NYC and Florida. Twenty passengers would board first in wheelchairs. When we landed, they did not wish to wait to deplane last, so they got up and ran off! We cured them!

  15. My girlfriend has a medical device that she needs to be able to put in the overhead bin and oftentimes she is encouraged to preboard for this reason to ensure that there is bin space. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty about it since it seems like this is usually not necessary, but I won’t decline the opportunity.

  16. I am an A List traveler with Southwest. Every single flight I take which is numerous there are a plethora of fakers pre boarding. I pay to be a A list traveler yet I’m lucky to get even close to front of plane. It’s BS! Fix it!!!

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