Why Southwest’s Open Seating Policy is a Windfall for New Parents

Early in the summer I wrote how Southwest’s ‘cattle car’ boarding is great for business travelers. Flying American, United, or Delta and booking at the last minute it can be tough to get a decent seat in economy especially if your preference is for an aisle seat as mine is.

However since there are no assigned seats on Southwest Airlines, the aisles aren’t taken up days in advance. If you have elite status even if you buy your tickets a couple of hours before departure you’ve still got a good shot at a decent seat, since the worst case is you’ll board after the ‘A’ group and before B’s and C’s.

The other side of the spectrum is that the ‘open seating’ policy is great for new families, too.

Not only does Southwest offer ‘family boarding’ when you’re traveling with a child under 4 years old — boarding with elites who don’t have A group boarding passes — but if you are traveling with a lap infant and the flight isn’t 100% full you can almost always get an extra seat for your baby without having to buy them one.

All you have to do is spread out across the seats. That’s a strategy many people employ anyway to discourage other passengers from sitting down next to you. Two parents traveling together with a child take an aisle and a window, put stuff in the middle seat.

Your lap infant is still going to have to sit on a lap for take off and landing (unless they have FAA approved restraints for sitting in a seat on their own). However it’s highly likely that no one will attempt to take that middle seat.

  1. They’ll think it is taken and won’t try
  2. They don’t want to sit next to a baby anyway

Having a baby is the extreme version of putting crumpled up tissues in the empty seat next to you and just waiting for passengers to pass you by. Odds on traveling with a baby means that on a full flight you will have the empty seat next to you. There’s no need to pay for a seat for a child under two, knowing you’ll probably get that seat free anyway.

This doesn’t work on other airlines because odds on the seat next to you won’t remain empty even if the flight isn’t full. On Southwest it’s a near-certainty that empty seats will be next to parents with babies. Now there may be more babies than empty seats, hence the strategy for making it look like the seat is taken.

Of course if someone asks if it is open, or tries to sit there, you need to let them.

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. When I fly WN, which I did a few times, I love to sit in the middle towards front. Go ahead gives me B35, see if I care, lol.

  2. Unless the flight is full, in which case you will get stuck next to whoever boards last, which is rarely the best choice in passengers.

    Or unless you board to find out the flight is a continuation, and already has like 50 holdover passengers onboard, who have taken all the aisle seats, before A1 boards the plane.

    I agree that WN’s seating is a lot better than AA’s “slip me a $50 or sit in the middle” seating plan, but WN’s is hardly perfect.

  3. Having flown WN for over 20 years, I have learned a lot.

    What good does it do you to board early, only to have a huge fat guy with a cold sit next to you later?

    You want to board in the middle, around B15, so you can find some little Asian lady to sit alongside.

    And to refer to it as a “cattle call” is inane. It’s a term someone invented in 1998 and silly people cannot get that out of their minds. Maybe back in the blue card days it was sort of like that.

    Now you sit comfortably in the waiting area until your group is called, stroll over, and stand in line for 30-60 seconds. Then you walk on. Most civilized airline boarding procedure yet invented, WAY better than struggling through 100 gate lice like on every legacy.

  4. In the age of 98% load averages, I would *not* advise young parents debating paying for a seat for their infant to just try to save their cash. If the flight is completely full (which, odds are, it will be), the tactic of leaving a middle open with a baby isn’t going to work.
    Further, unless you’re the only family with a baby on the flight (also highly unlikely), it’s a roll of the dice on who’s going to actually be the family with an open extra seat.
    If you don’t buy the baby a seat (and keep their boarding pass!), you are quite likely to wind up with a very undesirable passenger sitting in that last open seat. If you’re not comfortable with your 20month old sitting on your lap the whole flight, buy them the seat to guarantee the space.

  5. I don’t fly WN a lot, but I’m going to go out of my way to sit next to people trying this tactic out. I have two little kids. See if I care.

  6. This worked great when my kids were little, but that was an era with much lower load factors. Now it’s much riskier to try to game the empty middle seat for the baby. Still, your odds are better on WN than with the seating policies of the other airlines.

    One odd thing that happened to us on WN was the gate agent asking to see the child’s birth certificate to confirm that she was under 2. No other airline (and there were many) had ever asked us for a birth certificate, and we didn’t fly with one. The agent made us buy our baby a ticket, which was refunded to us when we sent in a copy of the birth certificate. Not sure if WN still does this.

  7. Better yet, load your 8-year old up on sugar just before boarding last and have HIM sit in the middle seat between the two millenials trying to score a third seat for free…

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