Southwest May Soon Crack Down On Seat Savers And Wheel Chair Abusers

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I hate to quote a Taylor Swift song title, but “this is why we can’t have nice things” comes to mind whenever I think about Southwest Airlines’ open boarding policy.

Southwest’s current open boarding policy

For those not familiar with how Southwest Airlines boards their flights, they split their passengers into three major boarding groups, that being A, B and C. Each lettering group is then split into 60 different numbered positions. So you might see something like A9 or B35 or C50 on your ticket, indicating where you’ll be required to stand in line when your boarding group is called.

Your boarding group and number is determined by how quickly you check in once the 24 hour window is opened just before the flight. Check in can be done online or at the airport, but I guarantee you many passengers sit patiently on their phones or laptops waiting for that check in window to open so they can snag a good place in line.

There are some exceptions to this process. Customers who have status via the Rapid Rewards program are immediately put to the front of the check in queue, while those who purchase EarlyBird Check In are automatically checked in at the 24 hour mark. The latter is not a guarantee that you’ll get a good spot, but you’ll surely get a better place in the line up.

Southwest also has Business Select fares which are premium tickets with perks like guaranteed priority positions from A1 through A15, free premium drinks, additional travel points, and so on.

There is also the Family Boarding group between groups A and B which allows for up to two family members traveling with a child 6-years-old or younger to board and be seated together.

Finally, there is Preboarding for those who have disabilities and require assistance getting onto the aircraft. This is done before general boarding groups A, B and C.

How some passengers abuse the systems

Credit: Bradley Wint/Gate Checked

The boarding process is generally a simple one, but unfortunately more and more passengers have started to take advantage of the loopholes, making the whole experience a frustrating one for other travelers.

Seat Savers

Sometimes groups of people traveling together may want to be seated together, but with the check in process being a big guessing game, sometimes these “groups” may get boarding positions far apart from each other.

To counter this, the person with the best boarding position would find an empty row and place items on the adjacent seats to discourage other passengers from trying to occupy them. When the person’s friends come on later, their “reserved” seats are there waiting on them.

This might not have been a big deal way back when, but with so many more people abusing this technique, having a preferred position becomes somewhat a waste of time. The problem with this is that flight attendants might not care to spend too much time arguing about this (even though they should). There is no clear way of proving who should sit where, and the matter could turn into a drawn out “he said, she said” situation.

With the priority being put on on-time departures, I can’t fault the flight attendants for not wanting spend their boarding time playing investigator to multiple seat hoarding situations.

On top of that, passengers removing items from empty seats comes with its own set of implications.

Wheel chair scam artists

There are many legitimate passengers who need wheel chair assistance to board flights, but with Southwest’s policy allowing free reign during preboarding, it’s no surprise to see 20-30+ passengers using the wheelchair service to get on board first. There have even been reports of 50+ passengers preboarding, most of whom are suddenly cured and walk off the flight with no help.

Assigned seating may soon come to Southwest

Credit: Southwest Airlines

In Southwest’s Q1 earnings call, the airline reported a $231 million loss for the first quarter of 2024, and proposed a number of measures to counter this including reducing its staff complement, reducing turnaround times, flying red-eye flights, and cutting less profitable routes.

The airline also plans to introduce thinner seats, but won’t be adding additional rows. Besides the weight savings, thinner seats also means more space throughout the cabin, and the possibility of an additional revenue stream.

More space opens the possibility of offering a “premium” product where customers could pay for more legroom, maybe as part of a bundled package such as seating closer to the front with priority boarding.

The final details have yet to be confirmed, but to implement something like this would mean that the traditional open seating policy will have to be done away with in favor of assigned seating.

An unintended benefit of this means that seat savers can no longer block rows for their friends or family, and those abusing the preboarding privilege may feel less inclined to do so given that they would already have an assigned seat. It would also bring more accountability as unruly passengers can easily be identified by seat from the passenger manifest.

It’s going to be interesting to see what Southwest settles on as they’d also have factor in keeping their A-listers happy. I’m sure many won’t be pleased if assigned seating does come to Southwest, but time and time again we lose a good thing because some people choose to take advantage of the system.

Featured image: Bradley Wint/Gate Checked

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