With One Simple Change, Southwest Airlines Will Deal Blow To Wheelchair Scammers, Unruly Passengers And Seat Savers

One simple change Southwest Airlines is working on – and plans to announce later this year – would change their boarding process, and in so doing service to end the phenomenon of passengers faking disabilities to board early, end the practice of seat saving, and make it easier to identify unruly passengers on board.

That change is assigned seats, instead of the current free for all. And Southwest Airlines shared during their earnings calls that they’re looking into changes to how seating works with the specifics to be reveal later at their Investor Day.

In February I explained that the new cabin interiors they revealed gave us a clue for what to expect.

  • Thinner seats, while saying they wouldn’t add seats to planes, means more space to use for extra legroom seating probably at the front of the aircraft.
  • For these new premium extra legroom seats to make sense, Southwest would have to assign seats rather than making them first-come, first-served.

The airline says they don’t know exactly how a new offering plays out. Clearly there will either be assigned seats for new premium seating, or assigned seats throughout the aircraft. Regardless, assigned seats aren’t just a way to restrict premium seats to customers paying more for them. They are also a way to identify who is sitting in each seat. And that turns out to be useful when running a smooth operation, and dealing with problem passengers.

On every other airline, a passenger’s name and seat assignment is on the flight’s manifest for easy identification. Only Southwest Airline’s lacks this information.

  • If there are more passengers on the plane than there are supposed to be, you don’t know who is supposed to be there and who isn’t.
  • If a passenger in a specific seat is causing problems, you don’t immediately know who it is.
  • If a problem passenger doesn’t identify themselves, you need to take everyone off and reboard them to know who’s still on the plane.

After David Dao was dragged off a United Airlines flight and bloodied in 2017, airlines frequently began takig everyone off of the plane rather than taking just one passenger off the plane when someone refused to simply get off when asked to do so. That way they wouldn’t have to have police come on and see matters escalate. United, in particular, became sensitive to having law enforcement on their aircraft for obvious reasons. The Dao story was a global phenomenon, and delayed then CEO Oscar Munoz becoming he airline’s chairman (and therefore likely delayed Scott Kirby from becoming CEO).

However it’s Southwest Airlines that can present the biggest challenge for law enforcement. FBI agents complain that Southwest Airlines is frustrating to deal with in unruly passenger situations on aircraft because passengers can’t easily be identified by their seat assignment.

Of course there are two other huge advantages seat assignments will bring,

  1. The end of seat saving. No more claiming 13 seats for your group or using a bag of donuts to claim a whole row of seats, and the ensuing conflict that comes from taking more space than your ticket allows.

    Woman saving an entire row of plane seats behind her with donut bags.
    byu/Hog_Fan inmildlyinfuriating

  2. The end of Jetbridge Jesus flights where dozens of passengers board in wheelchairs, to get on first have their first pick of seats, but walk off just fine at the end of the flight themselves. This won’t just promote fairness, but will stop hogging wheelchairs and staff time pushing those chairs to make them more available for those that really need the assistance.

With one simple change – assigned seating – you’ll solve many of the problems that turn boarding a Southwest Airlines flight into an exercise in game theory.

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. As a long-time (10+ years) A-list / A-list preferred Southwest customer…it will be interesting to see how any assigned seating will affect the A-list / A-list preferred customer benefits…one of which is being able to get decent boarding assignments no matter what…even when switching flights during the day. Assigned seating would seem to have significant impacts to the A-list / A-list preferred status. It will be interesting to see what Southwest does regarding this if they go to assigned seating.

  2. The way to fix the wheelchair problem is to board them last. Suddenly you will have none.

  3. I have trouble walking long distances in airports and have used wheelchair at times if it a huge airport. Hubby has heart problems and bladder issues needs to be close to bathroom. Appreciate the wheelchair service. Folks sb required to show handicap sticker to get service.

  4. There is some controversy over how to best serve disabled passengers. I have had several flightmares where my Rollator was gate-checked and then not returned to me immediately upon reaching our destination. I refused to use a wheelchair, for reasons that may be hard for non-disabled people to understand. The only accommodation I request is to be seated on an aisle, preferably towards the front of the aircraft, for easy maneuvering. It is ironic that privilege-seeking people without disabilities are making things tougher for disabled people, who generally want to preserve as much independence and dignity as possible. with minimal drama and inconvenience to others.

  5. I stopped flying SW at any cost, simply because of the scammers. Being an A-lister or paying extra for early bird made little difference and it was not infrequent to see 20-30 “infirm” + their families “pre-board”. I remember one specific incident when my spouse and I were A6 & A7 and when we boarded there were no two adjacent, open seats forward and including the exit row. After confronting the flight attendants, who simply shrugged, and sending unanswered letters to corporate, we stopped flying with them and regard SW on the level of Frontier and Spirit.

  6. Me being disabled. I wouldn’t mind being last to get on board but how do i sit close to the front seat an also the isle seat ..I will be happy to show something that I’m disabled..just let me no what …I also would give my opinion on those thin seats not good for heavy
    weight people an people that have back problems ect ect …people that need to be wheeled on by workers waste of time .I have a person who flies with 1 person they can wheel me on instead of getting a worker or pilot to wheel me on ty

  7. As someone who travels often with a person who uses a wheelchair, we need those seats up front and pre-boarding allows us to get settled in without having to navigate around other people. Typically we use the second row because we don’t need legroom, but me transferring her further back would become more difficult because I help walk her from her wheelchair to her seat. This is the most time efficient method, and allows her to be in control of her movement. Also since we must wait for her chair to come up then we are often the last ones off the plane. I do hope Southwest has a plan for continuing to prebaord those with significant physical needs. Boarding with a plane full of people staring and judging would be anxiety inducing, which further impairs her movement (and mine).

  8. I was recently on a cruise and overheard a woman bragging to others that she and her husband get wheelchairs when flying SWA so they can get on the plane first. She was laughing about it and urging people to do the same.

  9. I’ve wheelchairs one time when I wasn’t feeling up-to-par. I couldn’t walk thru airport to southwest gate. I will NEVER fly this aircraft again to the abusers but how do you tell who is or isn’t.

  10. I fly SWA several times a year and for several years. I have never seen the problems that have been described above.
    I love open seating. Unless I forget to check in and have a C group I can always get an isle seat. The best part of open seating is I don’t have to sit near babies or people who are overflowing their seats.

  11. I quit flying SW several years ago as it has become a cattle car with all the scammers allowed to board in wheelchairs and cheap seat savers. Even other airlines coaches have become filled with rudeness and malcontents. Bit the bullet and fly first class or stay home.

  12. This whole “issue of seating” is a SWA manufactured problem. It’s an earnings call that will add more salt to the existing chaos. They’re just getting to ready for a new charge. If you want a seat, please pay extra!

  13. I’m a disabled person who has issues with walking long distance and with balancing, the last few times that I needed a wheelchair I was told to try to walk just take my time due to so many people needing wheelchairs and not enough staff. It’s not fun trying to get to the gate and you’re in pain by the time you get there. It’s embarrassing to try to get on the plane with a cane walking slower, trying to navigate around people, bumping into people while getting the evil eye because you’re holding them up. Most disabled people have disability cards along with their placards that Southwest could verify and the disabled should be able to get on after military but before families when the plane id less crowded and easier to navigate. When I flew in Iceland, the disabled boarded first with verification.

  14. First, seat saving is not a thing on Southwest, as this writer keeps insisting it is in every one of his articles. You can sit anywhere you want and no one can stop you. If someone tries a flight attendant will correct them quickly. Also, I think a great way to handle the handicapped problem is put them at the rear of the aircraft when boarding and wait for everyone to deplane before them. This makes it easier for everyone as the aisles will be clear to make it easier for truly handicapped folks and there is no advantage for people to fake it.

  15. I feel sorry for people who say put handicap people in rear of the plane. That’s not feasible, as most of us are handicap that can’t walk too far and can’t get around people. I love SW and have flown with them for years, for the reason that because I am handicap I can go on first. No other airline dies that. I have never seen the problems people are referring to never. It will be a sad day if SW changes this. I have proof of being handicap.

  16. The lady with the donut bags, I would have taken one of the seats and ate a bag of the donuts. Thanks for the treat lady.

  17. Sadly, many airlines (especially Asian flights) are overwhelmed by wheel chair passengers. I remember a flight to India, another one from Tokyo to Manila where half of a 300+ passenger plane was filled by wheelchair users.

    My thought is simple – charge for the service, charge to reserve seats and blacklist passengers who don’t use the arrival wheelchair. My observation is about 10-20% are truly needing wheelchair assistance – they have my sympathy and prayers.

    Help those that need help, punish those who game the system.

  18. I love that SW does pre-board, and I do use it because I have issues with standing too long, but do not use wheelchairs yet.
    I do have documentation that I carry with me at all times when traveling.
    I have seen the abusers before, young and large get wheeled from the curb to gate, then hop up and go to a restaurant across from gate to get alcohol drinks.
    Maybe they should ask for documentation. Even though I walk on to plan slowly, I have gotten the looks from people “why is she pre-board?”. Not everyone’s disability is seen with the eye, so don’t be so quick to judge. Thank you

  19. Who pays two bit web sites like this to act as if there are huge problems with Southwest. I am an every weeker for 15 years and have not once witnessed the problems.
    Not… Once.

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