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.