Why Southwest’s Cattle Car Boarding is Great for Business Travelers and Elites

Last year American Airlines CEO Doug Parker explained in detail why his airline would never provide the flexibility that Southwest does. He called Southwest “the cattle car” and said Southwest doesn’t “have a lot of business customers on their airplanes.”

That certainly hasn’t been my experience. Southwest certainly has ample business customers in business markets. At peak business travel times there are plenty of customers in suits heading to and from work. My semi-regular Washington National – Austin flight on a Thursday afternoon is almost always sold out and mostly business travelers. Southwest carries more passengers domestically than American does.

Southwest doesn’t charge ticket change fees. If you have a non-refundable ticket and cancel you retain the full value of your ticket towards future travel. Southwest doesn’t charge checked baggage fees for up to two bags, either. Reward bookings are refundable without penalty.

Southwest Airlines does not pre-assign seats. You get a boarding number, and it’s open seating. First person on the plane chooses their seat and each subsequent passenger boarding picks from what’s still available as they get on the plane.

  • Customers with the most expensive ‘business select’ tickets (or who buy up at the gate) get the A1-15 boarding positions.

  • Elite customers automatically get the next boarding positions.

  • Then people who buy ‘early bird check-in’ since boarding position will be determined for most customers based on how far in advance they check in for their flight. Check in exactly 24 hours prior to departure and you’ll be ahead of someone checking in 23 hours out.

Elites get better boarding positions, which means they’re generally going to have no problem getting an aisle seat. Southwest Airlines ‘seat pitch’ — the distance from seat back to seat back — is greater than on American, United, and Delta. I have no problem opening my laptop and working on a Southwest flight, so give me an aisle seat and I’m happy.

In contrast to the large legacy carriers, booking in the days prior to departure I find I often cannot get an extra legroom (Economy Plus, Comfort+, Main Cabin Extra) seat — they’re all taken — let alone an extra legroom aisle seat.

For someone like me often booking business travel within two weeks of departure I can do better with my seating on Southwest than I can on the legacy airlines.

I don’t love lining up in boarding order to get on the aircraft. In some ways it’s far more civilized than the gate experience at Delta, American, and United because you don’t get the ‘gate lice‘ experience with passengers all crowding the gate, where you can barely get through to board because customers in later boarding groups are ‘ready to pounce’.

I don’t actually like being the first to board. I’d rather just be ‘not last’. I want to make sure I have overhead bin space. But why spend more time on the aircraft than necessary? With Southwest I need to board as early as possible to get my preferred seat. But I’ll generally get it.

However the real value of Southwest’s boarding process was driven home for me a week ago. Recently I was scheduled to fly American Airlines home from DC on a Thursday afternoon. My flight was cancelled and there were no good options on American to get home the same day. My auto-rebooking wasn’t until Friday evening. That certainly wasn’t acceptable either.

I wound up buying the last seat on the Southwest non-stop about three and a half hours prior to departure. There were no ‘Business Select’ seats left, just refundable seats. I couldn’t check in 24 hours in advance because it was already less than four hours to departure and I couldn’t buy up for better boarding.

My boarding position? C-53.

Fortunately I have just the first tier of Southwest status, A List. And elites without an “A” boarding group board between A and B (along with families with young children). So despite being C-53, I was simply behind 60 or so passengers. There are more than 60 aisle seats, and in fact I wound up with an aisle in the middle of the plane because some people prefer a window closer to the front and some passengers are traveling together. It turns out I was even 2 passengers away from being able to grab an exit row aisle.

I’ve changed flights at the last minute, often due to irregular operations, and frequently wound up in middle seats on American because all of the better seats are taken. Southwest’s boarding process preserves all of its seats until the last minute and anyone buying Business Select or buying up to A1-15 boarding when still available, or with elite status, should still be able to snag an aisle.

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. “Cattle car.”

    Stupid b*stard. He’s way over a decade behind the times.

    WN is kicking the helm out of his airline. He’s too dumb to get it.

  2. I share your dislike of Doug Parker’s arrogance but given that I am usually one of the last people on the plane, I spend a lot of OPM to avoid a WN middle seat on anything over an hour.

  3. Plus, in many instances, Southwest has more flights and better times, at least in my experience.

  4. I’d still rather be in MCE and occasionally get first class upgrades. I couldn’t tell you the last time I checked two bags. And a lot of biz travelers have lounge access – something that is often nonexistent in SW terminals.

    The real value of SW for biz travelers is for people who don’t live in hubs. Look at where you can get from a place like Kansas City or Tulsa. Those direct flights are huge. That’s when I fly SW.

  5. This is why AA and UA (Kirby) have blocked most seats as preferred seats. So as a general consumer you have very limited complimentary seat options.

  6. No business travelers? Hah. Try flying intra-California, especially out of BUR. Packed flights, full of suits any time I head to OAK, SMF.

  7. A CEO that has ruined American Airlines and many of his once loyal customers
    Parker is in denial and I will spend whatever it takes to avoid flying American till he’s hopefully gone one day
    For 20 plus years before his arrival it was my favorite airline and program
    I am happier flying elsewhere now and save condierably since i know longer get screwed

  8. I have lifetime Platinum status on United, and as a retiree, only fly a couple of times a year. Given this, I get free checked bags, and free Economy Plus. If this weren’t the case, I would fly Southwest whenever possible. They’re *not* always the lowest cost, but they offer the most civil experience for non-elite travelers, and they don’t charge exorbitant change fees.

  9. Great post – given the same price I would fly Southwest over the majors just due to SW’s consistent planes (not CRJs), their great customer service and flexible points and cancellation policies. If I want to change a flight for my family on Delta, that’s $600…..

  10. Concur with Gary’s observations regarding WN. I’ve been an elite with them for ~15 years. They are worth flying for the positive attitude from most all of their employees, if for no other reason. Parker is simply rationalizing his boardroom’s continued pillaging of a once-respectable airline. AA, DL and UA have nothing on WN when it comes to respect for their clients and good business sense.

  11. The good news is the average CEO Tenure is around 5 to 6 years on average so there is hope for AA, maybe.

  12. Congratulations on discovering what Southwest regulars have known since 2007, when the new boarding system began: It’s great for elites who switch flights at the last minute. You also can improve your odds of an empty middle seat if the flight is not full. Choose a seat just aft of the exit row. Those rows are the last to fill.

    The biggest weakness of open seating is tight connections or ones that become tight due to a delay. You can be stuck is the very worst seat on your connecting flight if you are last to board.

  13. The thing I like the best is that people on Southwest aren’t bringing their entire vacation luggage on the plane, clogging the aisles and the overheads and making boarding and deplaning a slow-motion stress-inducing process.

    Not giving into the bag fees idiocy was a differentiating strike of genius by them.

    But now that they’re doing medium/long-hauls to Hawaii, they need to install setback screens, especially for families with kids.

  14. There is no disputing the overall high quality of the Southwest experience. And also the quality of their people. But did you notice there is no seatback IFE? It’s BYOD. Somehow they are still a highly regarded airline.

  15. I’ve never understood why planes aren’t boarded from the rear to the front. Makes more sense to do it this way. You wouldn’t have people bumping into those sitting or slowed down waiting for people to put things in bins and stuff. Seems to me it would be much faster.

  16. Former (and still recovering) frequent business traveler – couldn’t agree more. I initially flew AA but switched to Southwest because of the flexibility to change flights at no or low cost and the overall better experience in economy, where I was most of the time anyway. I actually dread the boarding process on other airlines now exactly because of the “gate lice” phenomenon – it feels so disorganized compared to Southwest. Another perk for time-crunched business travelers: overhead bins that rarely fill up because people can check their bags for free. Several times I’ve been the last passenger to board a completely full SW flight, but in those times I never had an issue finding space for my bag in the overhead bin. That’s a nice savings of 20 minutes on the other end, a big difference when you’re just trying to get to the hotel or back home to the family.

  17. Southwest works best if I fly non-stop. With a connection, there is a risk of the inbound flight being delayed which could cause me to board the next flight later than my assigned group.

  18. I’m going to keep asking this question until it’s answered … how the hell does Dougie still have a job!??!

  19. Nothing more infuriating and it’s very common for biz travellers to be booking a ticket less than a week before departure, paying around $1,000 for it, often have top tier status and either experiencing (a) no seat available for selection at all (& has to be allocated at the airport), or (b) being allocated a middle seat in the tail as nothing else is available.

    Southwest is so much better in taking care of biz travellers and/or their most valuable customers when this happens. Why Delta, AA, United can’t figure out how to improve that experience is beyond me

  20. You have captured exactly why I fly Southwest almost exclusively for all of my business travel. In addition to getting a great boarding spot on my business select tickets and being able to get a full-refund when travel plans change (and they often do for me), my A-list preferred gets me a great boarding position for personal travel, even on last minute bookings like this. I also fly Southwest enough for work to earn a companion pass so the wife flies free (+taxes) on our 10-15 personal round-trip flights every year. I also love to use Southwest for booking positioning flights when a city I don’t live in has international first class award tickets, or an international fare sale. I can easily connect to that city using my Southwest Points + Companion Ticket. 🙂

  21. Have been flying WN for 20+ years within California and neighboring states and love them. Clear what you are and are not getting. As an A Lister, always board worst case before B folks. Everyone else, please avoid their “cattle car” boarding and fair pricing. Stay on AA and other legacy carriers.

  22. Just walk down the terminal of any aa dl or ua flight and you will find the people blocking the corridor as they wait to board. Walk but a wn gate and it not blocked. Wn has great happy outgoing employees. NO ONE BEATS THE COMPAINON PASS

  23. So just how Freudian was this one?

    It turns out I was even 2 passengers away from being able to grab an EXIST row aisle.

  24. Well there are still a few of us that don’t have the “luxury” of choosing WN.
    I live 10 mins due south of AA dominated MIA, so making that obscene trip up I-95 to FLL doesn’t make much sense, plus I prefer not to puddle jump.

  25. Business traveler? Not at my airport. It is all families with kids kids kids and old people flying to Orlando and the Silver hair cities of Florida Then if the flight has a weather problem good luck out of Chicago ! Your Monday flight gets cancelled and the next available is on Wednesday because everything else is full.

    Who does pay for checked bags any more? AA, UA, DL all give credit card holders free bags so that is never a difference.

    As for blocking of gates for boarding. That is airport design of the boarding area. They need to do it parallel to the outside wall not perpendicular to it.

  26. I’m not a huge fan of unreserved seats (and still am not), but I’ve slowly grown more fond of Southwest due to (1) free checked bags; and (2) more direct flights. I’m surprised the other majors haven’t figured out how to combine “exact order” boarding with assigned seats–would reduce gate lice and speed things up on the plane.

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