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Airlines

Does Southwest’s Boarding Policy Work for Anyone?

Does Southwest’s Boarding Policy Work for Anyone?
Brenda Bertram

I’ve flown with about 10 different airlines this year. While most of them boarded the plane using what I will call the ‘regular’ method—boarding groups usually associated with status tiers, then from back to front—two were a little different.

SilkAir boarded by row. Yes, by row. This was a flight from Singapore to Sri Lanka. Most importantly, people obeyed. Several people tried to jump ahead and were severely reprimanded by the stern, but pleasant, flight attendant. I found the whole experience amusing, if a little slow.

Southwest Airlines, as we all know, has a rather different approach to boarding. I decided to look into the logic behind it.

Why Do Airlines Care so Much About Boarding?

In a world of quick turnarounds, every second is important. Anything that will help speed up the process of boarding is seen as a lucrative way of improving operational efficiency. In the 1970s, it apparently took around 15 minutes to board a plane (which were, presumably, a bit smaller than modern aircraft used on domestic today). The rise of cabin baggage usage and accessibility of flying to people of all ages, shapes, and sizes has inevitably slowed the process somewhat.

Apparently, boarding by row in reverse numerical order is actually one of the worst (read: slowest) ways to board a flight. Using a random row assignment call yields quicker results. Besides, any method of boarding that allows the aisle seat to board before the window will inevitably create bottlenecks. Passengers will be required to stand up to let others in, creating a line that fills the aisle and slows boarding progress.

A few airlines—notably budget carriers—attempted full open boarding, letting anyone sit where they wanted without the use of boarding groups. Unsurprisingly, chaos generally ensued. It turns out that people aren’t particularly civilized in the face of a rare commodity—the window seat. Who could have guessed? Ryanair still operates a largely open policy, with a catch we’ll note later—the ability to pay for pre-boarding.

In 2012, Dr. Jason Steffen developed a boarding method that utilized a rather unique means of boarding an aircraft, which involved boarding window seats first, boarding one side of the plane (even rows) first, switching to the other side, then filling the odd rows. Mildly complicated, but apparently very effective.

United apparently uses a similar but slightly less complicated system. I didn’t experience it on my recent flight with them, but it appears the method works best on short-haul, narrow-body flights. ANA is another airline that utilizes this method. Given the prevalence of polite queueing in Japan, it’s not unusual that it works well.

Most airlines, however, don’t board in this way. Instead of solving the problem by boarding in a different way, airlines have typically taken a different approach, one that seems a little contradictory to efficient operations. In a world of thin operating margins and ancillary revenue, why not start charging for early access? Those overhead bins are limited in number after all. In a society where we all have a fear of missing out, it appears quite a few people are willing to give up a few dollars to board early.

Southwest Shakes It up a Bit

Southwest’s boarding policy is a little…intense. The airline boards randomly, without assigned seating, and you’re given a number and zone (A, B or C). It’s first-come, first-serve, and the only way to get Zone A is to pay extra for it, or check-in extra early—both of which I failed to do. You also get the fun experience of lining up in a particular number order, but to be honest, that process was pretty civilized.

So, who actually benefits from this boarding policy, beyond the airline? Traveling with a partner is a pain because unless you pay for early boarding, you’re out of luck. On other airlines, it feels like there is at least a chance of ending up with a seat together.

While the pre-boarding process was simple, it got a bit weird once we got onto the plane. Naturally, everyone prior to us had sat in either the window or the aisle seat. This was despite the fact that the flight was full, and they knew that someone would, inevitably, end up in the middle seat.

This made boarding pretty slow. It didn’t prevent people in the aisle seat from having to stand up and block the aisle to let others in—although admittedly, it did manage to stagger this phenomenon to lots of different spots throughout the plane. The only people that seemed to deviate from this plan were those trying to hold rows for their later boarding friends, which caused all sorts of drama in the rear of the cabin.

I didn’t feel like boarding was faster than any other airline, although Southwest is looking at ways to improve the process further. Given Southwest’s generous baggage policy, I couldn’t quite understand why so many people took carry on luggage. I didn’t feel like the flight was full of business passengers that needed to roll off quickly. I’m not a frequent flyer in America, but I suspect it might have something to do with the amount of time it takes to pick up your luggage at the other end which is the problem. That or people are just super impatient.

It’s Not Just Southwest Experimenting With Boarding

Delta notably introduced a color-coded system in 2018, which seemed to baffle frequent flyers and casual travelers alike. It included several different colors of blue and red, with the latter apparently being problematic for color-blind passengers.

In the United Kingdom, it’s an airport—not an airline—that’s doing things a little differently. In this controversial method, the airport displays individual passenger numbers one at a time and calling them forward. Passengers sitting in the following seats are told to ‘be ready’ to join their earlier called passengers. Being conducted on Easyjet flights from Gatwick Airport, it’s hoped it will reduce up to 10% off average boarding times.

Even if Southwest claims that its the faster boarding that really matters, there is another key reason why Southwest boards in a particular way. Remember that earlier comment on ancillary revenue? Southwest is raking it in. In 2018, Southwest earned over $642 million in ancillary fees, including early boarding. In 2017, two-thirds of its ancillary revenue resulted directly from early boarding fees. That’s a lot of people willing to pay for a prime spot in the line.

So, what’s your verdict? I’ve only flown Southwest the one time, and I feel I’m ill-equipped to make a judgment. Is Southwest’s boarding policy worth the hassle? Or, do you prefer a traditional approach to boarding? Most of all, do you pay for the privilege of getting on the plane first—or would you consider it? Let us know in the Southwest Airlines forums.

View Comments (11)

11 Comments

  1. SkyIsKing

    November 23, 2019 at 5:32 am

    I don’t mind Southwest’s boarding policy. Of course, I am a very slender woman who can fit into any seat. I don’t carry on luggage if I can check it. What is a problem is when a very large person who boards last and can’t fit comfortably into the middle or any other seat. When I sit in an airline seat, I don’t want to touch the person next to me or have them invade my space. I want the armrests down and no encroachment. I don’t get up to use the facilities (nasty on aircraft) thus the window seat is fine for me. What some people do not realize is that if your flight is changed, you lose your early seat choice preference even if you have paid to board early. In any event, the last seat gets to the location in the same time period as the first seat.

  2. Irpworks

    November 25, 2019 at 8:50 pm

    Been flying Southwest since early 1980’s and have little problem with boarding. I like the opportunity to buy the early boarding when my needs require such. It loads as fast as UA’s system. Your point on carry on items is one I wonder about often. I think it’s awful to have to carry much around airports and through security but so many seem to enjoy living as pack mules.

  3. dansachs

    November 27, 2019 at 6:26 am

    “The only way to get Zone A is to pay extra for it, or check-in extra early”

    Or fly often enough to get status. In other words, like every other airline.

  4. Superjeff

    November 27, 2019 at 6:53 am

    I generally avoid Southwest if I can, and I’m based in one of their main “hubs” (although Southwest doesn’t call them “hubs”), specifically because of their boarding system. I want the ability to have a specific assigned/allocated seat. Period. And I know a lot of other folks who feel the same way I do.

  5. Start_at_UIN

    Start_at_UIN

    November 27, 2019 at 7:19 am

    I was a Delta Elite before I started flying Southwest a couple years ago and frankly don’t miss assigned seats at all.Both Delta and SW start boarding at :30 before the listed flight time and in my experience SW pushes back before the actual time more frequently. Add in most of my flights out of STL are direct and SW is a HUGE win. No more sitting in MSP or ATL for hours waiting for a connection.

  6. pedrofs

    November 28, 2019 at 6:17 pm

    Maybe a WN employee can verify this, but I heard that their computer system can’t handle certain things, like assigning seats, and flights that operate before and after midnight (redeyes.) This second item is why they are not operating any evening Hawaii-Mainland flights, thus eliminating any online connections beyond CA (without a long layover.) due to the time difference.

  7. davesam12

    November 29, 2019 at 8:30 am

    I would fly WN more if they had assigned seats. And the pre-board numbers with them can be ridiculous. WN has the most flights at my home airport, but I still avoid them for those reason.

  8. Snuggs

    November 30, 2019 at 6:43 am

    SWAbhas the greatest system available…. if you are ok with claiming you have a disability. I usually make my “profit sharing contribution” ( what I call the pyt for the at the gate A 1-15 position).

    Nothing like paying $50. Only to watch a gaggle of self proclaimed invalids and their entourage amble aboard ahead.

    I especially “enjoyed” one mdw>fll felt with so many “handicapped” milling around, that it wasn’t until half way through loading the B group that the gate agent was advised that a woman in a wheel chair was left out of pre-boarding. What an embarrassing treatment of a true lay disabled person. They had to transfer her to another wheelchair that fits down the aisle, because none of the 400 lbs-ers up front would move for her.

    Pls don’t lecture about the “non obvious” disabled. Or frankly, stuff it. My spouse is partially disabled but refuses to pre-board because as she puts it “pre-board is about being ambulatory”.

    Or is it? As one woman sauntering up to pre-board put it in response to a comment from someone like me that paid $50 for early boarding…”I can’t help it if you ‘re a fool”.

    So I don’t see how SWA will maintain that ancillary fee cash flow when $50 gets you row 12, or at least the emergency row, if an FA isn’t holding them for someone they know. Don’t even start… I’ve experienced it more than once.

  9. maracle

    December 1, 2019 at 7:47 am

    Southwest consistently boards much faster than carriers with zone based systems. I’d say 10-15 minutes faster than American, Delta, etc.

    It’s also easy to sit with a companion as long as you check in promptly. Then either board together with the lower number or “hold” a middle seat. While you can’t technically hold seats, no one wants the middle anyway.

  10. WebTraveler

    December 2, 2019 at 5:18 am

    The seating issue keeps me off of Southwest as much as I can. It’s not worth it. But at times I am forced to fly them, and only do so as a last resort, or if the far is so low it makes sense to.

  11. horseymike

    December 4, 2019 at 5:48 am

    the biggest problem of all these boarding systems is the people who take advantage of the “special needs” situation to get on the plane first.
    while some of the people are ligit, many are not and abuse the system. all lined up in wheel chairs before boarding, when the plane lands 80%
    of the pre – boarders race off the plane like an olympic sprint.

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