Passing Mt Rainier onboard a Southwest Airlines 737 - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com

Passing Mt Rainier on-board a Southwest Airlines 737.

When I wanted to get between Seattle (SEA) and San Jose (SJC) via a direct flight, I didn’t have too many choices. I could have either flown on Alaska or Southwest Airlines.  Since I had never flown Southwest before, I decided to give it a try and tick a new airline off my list.

The whole experience began the day before my flight when it was time to check in.  I had read a few guides (although not the one written by the founder of this very website — oops) on how to deal with a Southwest flight.

Southwest, unlike any airline I had ever flown before, does not assign seating — it is a “Free for all”.  Your ticket simply lists your boarding group (A, B or C) and a number which is your place in line.  When you get on-board you are free to sit wherever you want.

The first 15 in the A group are reserved for Southwest’s frequent flyers or “A listers”. Some fare classes and those who pay for automatic early check-in [aka EarlyBird] snag the majority of the A group.  The first 60 guests get the A group, the next 60 get B and whatever is leftover gets C. You obviously don’t want to be in the C group, if you don’t like middle seats. I luckily scored an A group ticket — game on.

Southwest Airlines Check In Counters at Seattle Tacoma Airport - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com

Southwest Airlines Check In Counters at Seattle Tacoma Airport.

MY SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT REVIEW

Flight: WN2513
Airports: Seattle [SEA] to San Jose [SJC]
Time: 1825-2025
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300 (N394SW)

Not too much happened between checking in and getting to the airport. When I arrived, thankfully the ticket counter queues were non existent. I was quickly helped to check-in my two bags (which were free) and was  even given a boarding pass wallet to hold my baggage receipt (a rarity these days).

I had plenty of time but security was a zoo!  I had no status with Southwest, but really did not want to be waiting in that line. Luckily I was able to flash my Star Gold Card and head through the much shorter premium line — a reward for being a frequent flier.

These Big Leather Seats are located in parts of the B Councourse in SeaTac close at the Southwest Gates. Comfortable seating and Power, a good combination - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com

These big leather seats are located in parts of the B concourse in SeaTac close at the Southwest gates. Comfortable seating and Power, a good combination.

Heading to the gate, I was able to check on TripIt & Flightaware to see that my flight was running about 30 minutes late. It was toss up on how to spend my extra time: working or relaxing.

How about both? Southwest offers some pretty comfy seats by their gates at SeaTac where you can either chill out or work with the power outlet at the same seats — seemed a good score to me.

I knew that when the inbound aircraft finally arrived, that the unique Southwest experience would begin.  The boarding groups were asked to line up (in order) and the airline provides some nice metal poles to help with referencing.  Everyone seemed to know what they were doing and I was kind of along for the ride.

Either the people on my flight were all Southwest regulars or had done their research beforehand.  When they called my group to board, I was instantly devastated the moment I was scanned through and they kept my boarding pass.  As a frequent flier I always keep my boarding pass as pristine as possible, mainly because you never know if you are going to have to retroactively claim for points.  Plus I am an AvGeek and it is always a great memento of a special flight.

A typical Southwest Airlines boarding gate.  Quite confusing for a first time flyer - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com

A typical Southwest Airlines boarding gate. Quite confusing for a first time flyer.

With free seating aboard, there are numerous plans you can make and everyone probably has their own method.  My method that day (since it was probably going to be a full flight) was when I saw the first open window seat — sit in it.

BONUS: Guide to Getting a Good Seat Flying Southwest Airlines

When boarding, I saw that Row 4 had an empty window seat, but someone in the aisle.  That passenger was probably thinking she could hold off having other people in the row as they would just keep on going.  Their plan may work at times, but not that day.  I snagged myself 4A.

Looking at the seating and overhead bin space you could definitely see this was a Boeing 737 of the “Classic” variety.  Being a 300 series meant that it had the original overhead bins and lighting/air controls.  The legroom (with 32-33″ pitch on most aircraft) was pretty good and much more comfortable than I had expected.

Onboard a Southwest Airlines 737-300. Old School! - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com

On-board a Southwest Airlines 737-300. Old School!

After takeoff and climb out, I spent a good 20 minutes taking photos. This became my entertainment for a while, since the plane had no in-flight entertainment (IFE).  Many of Southwest’s 737s  are fitted with Row 44 WiFi, but not mine. It was okay, since I was content with a book, my camera, some music and disconnecting from the world for a couple of hours.  Soon, the on board service began and it was handled a little bit differently than what I was expecting.

Most airlines serve their beverages using a cart, but not Southwest. At first, flight attendants came to each person and asked what they would like to drink.  Next Southwest’s iconic Honey Roasted Peanuts were distributed.  I am not normally a fan of flavored nuts, (I am a natural, raw kind of person), but when on Southwest, you have to try them out.  They were just that little bit sweet, but still had a good hint of salt.

Then finally, the drinks were delivered by the crew.  Tray service for drinks means that they do not have to double check who ordered which drink. That little bit of extra service really made it feel different compared to other airlines.

The Famous Southwest Airlines Peanuts & a hand delivered Soda - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com

The famous Southwest Airlines peanuts & a hand delivered soda.

The rest of the flight was pretty non eventful — which is not a bad thing.  I had been given a tip for the San Jose approach to sit on the left side when coming from the north for great views of San Francisco. The view and the sunset did not disappoint.

The flight touched down (albeit late) and the last new experience for me happened. The flight was continuing on to Burbank after the brief stop and  the crew advised those guests continuing on to stay in their seats to be counted and then they could move around.  I had never flown an airline before that didn’t kick everyone off the flight first!

Descending into San Jose with an amazing Sunset - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com

Descending into San Jose with an amazing sunset.

So what were the eventual impressions of my first time on Southwest?  Well as someone who is a big loyalty program fan and holds elite status with other airlines, I won’t be trading off to Southwest anytime soon.  However, it’s not because I didn’t enjoy the flight or the crew’s bubbly personalities, but more that my loyalty is committed for another year at least.

I did like the more personalized drink service and being able to check my bags for free .  However to have my boarding pass taken frin me, as an AvGeek that digs deep. Yes, I realize that most other passengers wouldn’t care too much that.

Would that hold me back from flying Southwest again in the future?  Nope. If the price was right and the timing fit what was needed, then I wouldn’t hesitate flying Southwest again — just as long as I get my window seat.

NOTE: My flight on Southwest was covered by ANA as part of the ANA Ambassador Program. All opinions are my own.

Malcolm Muir, Lead Correspondent. Mal is an Australian Avgeek now living and working in Seattle. With a passion for aircraft photography, traveling and the fun that combining the two can bring. Insights into the aviation world with a bit of a perspective thanks to working in the travel industry. @BigMalX | BigMal’s World | Photos

CORRESPONDENT - SEATTLE, WA. Mal is an Australian native who has been a huge fan of airlines and aviation and currently works in airport-related operations. Email: [email protected]

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14 Comments

Hey there, I am sorry you did not take your copy of the boarding pass. That is something I have done on southwest airlines before. Similar to the old paper tickets that the airlines used to staple to the boarding pass and would only give you the receipt. It is there for the taking and says in small print keep for your records. However, I do understand all other do things differently. Next time just take the receipt or better yet, just tell the gate agent you lost your boarding pass and ask for a new one! They will be more than happy to reissue it will ID of course and you get to keep the one you dont use! Happy Trails, Frank

Malcolm:

The first 15 spots in line are not for “A Listers”, or any elite level of the WN frequent flyer program. They are for those who pay for Business Select. That also means that the A Group is only 45 plus whatever few people book in Business Select.

Southwest’s elite card holders’ board after Business Select as part of the A group, but only if you booked more than 36 hours before the flight’s scheduled departure time. Until recently, if you were elite and didn’t book more than 36 hours (including making a change) you were issued a regular boarding pass with no priority and would board during that BP’s designated spot.

A new change on WN is that now elite travelers that book within the 36 hours get to board just after the A Group. May sound trivial, but it’s actually a good improvement. You can switch flights late in the game and still find space for your carry-on(s).

Another new thing, if there are Business Select boarding passes left and not reserved (i.e. unsold Business Select fares) they are offered prior to boarding for $40. And on the Boarding Passes, if it is the ticket paper stock that is printed from the ticket counter or kiosk machine, you have the option to tear off the perforated portion on the right hand side.

I hold elite status on both United (*G) and Southwest (A List Preferred). I hated Southwest the first few times I flew them. Now, after a good 5 years of regular Southwest travel, I absolutely love the airline. Hands down, their flight attendants are the friendliest you’ll ever meet. Most planes have wifi, which is free with elite status. A small but important detail for my typical morning flights, Southwest coffee is actually really good! The Southwest frequent flyer program is incredibly generous – the companion pass at the top of the program has to be the best deal in aviation. Most of all, I like that they always deliver on their brand proposition. It’s a different experience than United, which nearly consistently over-promises and under-delivers. On United, if I buy a ticket 24 hours before departure, I’m pretty much assured of getting a middle seat; the standard practice of assigned seats doesn’t deliver a lot of value if you buy your tickets at the last minute.

Southwest obviously can’t fly me everywhere I need to go, so I’m occasionally on United. I fly United just enough to maintain my Star Gold status, which is the only way to keep United from being a truly miserable experience (elite security access & advance economy plus seating). I don’t fly United because I love the experience or believe that the airline provides value for my money. Most of my travel is on Southwest because I truly like the experience and the airline delivers great value for the money.

I have flown WN several times throughout their history. The first out of PHX in the early 80’s. My son was an infant so we got to sit in their club seating area. The crew still hid in overheads and told jokes throughout the flight. It was fun! The last time was recently. Aside from boarding, it seemed like every other airline. Everyone was friendly, and boarding was efficient, but the whimsical feel was gone. I would still fly them even as an AS employee (though I still prefer my carrier!).

I’ve always kept my Southwest boarding passes. Even if I print them at home and take them with me to the airport(s), I always print one or two more at a kiosk at the airport (they’re much nicer on card-stock than printer paper) and put them in my bag.

I used to tear the tab off of the card-stock boarding passes and kept just that part, until I realized that I could simply ask for the full pass back after they scan it. I’ve never had a Southwest gate agent not hand it back to me instantly.

Thanks so much everyone for your comments. It is good to see that I am not the only one who keeps hold of their boarding passes.

I wasn’t aware that Business select fares got the first 15 spaces, I thought that was exclusively for the A Listers and that the Business select fares got it after the A Listers.

CattleCall

I would like to thank Southwest for ruining the airline industry in America. Remember when flying was fun and you got things called “meals” even in coach? I sure do. Every airline had to significantly lower the bar so Billy Bo Bob Joe Jerry Jackson Jr could lug his duct taped cooler luggage on previously great airlines.

CattleCall

Being an AvGeek and flying on Southwest is like being a roller coaster enthusiast and riding a carousel.

CattleCall, I think it goes without saying for the majority of us who travel frequently and read this blog, but your comments don’t bring anything to this discussion. Most of us are thinking this…Just wanted to be sure someone said it.

Rush2112

Actually Wendy, while he didn’t add to the discussion, he IS right. I think it’s a discussion that needs to be had. To me it’s the elephant in the room that true AvGeeks are afraid to acknowledge with fear of being ridiculed and ganged up on. Well I’m not afraid to say it. Southwest RUINED airline travel in America. There are many reasons I’m an AvGeek. I LOVE reading the reviews on this site about great airlines annod their service. Unfortunately these aren’t US airlines. We can no longer compete with that level of service anymore all because of Southwest. Legacy airlines were the standard by which the rest of the world had to follow. Now they are barely alive, not because they sucked, but because they had to drastically lower their standards just to compete with the joke known as Southwest. I used to enjoy travel. I looked forward to good service and a good meal. Now I’d rather drive. I’d like input from others. Show me why I should think otherwise. I used to have a career in the industry, but Southwest ruined that too.

While I can acknowledge that Southwest may have been a contributing factor to the decline in the airline industry in the US, I think its really short-sighted and ignorant to blame Southwest for the degradation of airline service in the US. The Legacy airlines were largely at fault.

I remember flying back in the mid to late nineties on flights that had more empty seats than passengers. And I am not talking about short little puddle jumpers either. I remember taking red-eyes from the west coast and easily being able to snag an entire row to stretch out. Many transcontinental routes in the late nineties regularly had load factors below 50%. That is no way to run a successful business.

Southwest introduced more competition into the market and undercut the legacies on a lot of routes. However, the legacy carriers inability to adjust their business practices fast enough, and their resulting bankruptcies and consolidations that followed, contributed a much larger share to the decline in the american travel experience compared to the introduction of the low-cost point-to-point competition that Southwest brought to the table. That’s just my two cents

I could not agree more with Kevin, so no need to restate all of his points. I would also add points about 9/11, SARS, and economic conditions – can you say these things had no effect on the “great” legacy carriers?

The other thing I take issue with is this notion that being an AvGeek and being something other than a platinum legacy carrier flyer who sits up front every time are mutually exclusive. AvGeek DOES NOT mean business travel snob. An AvGeek is someone who is thrilled to take part in the miracle of flight every time, even if they are sitting in a middle seat in the back. It’s someone who looks up at the sky every single time they hear a plane fly. It’s people who like to hack their trips with seating charts and who do crazy mileage runs. In that sense, a good argument could probably be made that there are more “low class” AvGeeks out there than there are entitlement legacy types.

At the risk of sounding like another website with many closet experts in the airline industry, we can really trace the decline in service to Alfred Kahn and deregulation. When the CAB ceased to exist and carriers were forced to compete for passengers, naturally the airlines changed their business in order to make money. Some airlines went on aircraft buying binges(ie. Eastern and the high interest rates they paid for the aircraft they purchased), some reduced inflight amenities (see American’s Bob Crandall’s removal of olives from salads to save money), and some filed for bankruptcy in order to abrogate union contracts in order to lower costs. They not only had to compete with Southwest, but People Express, America West, and New York Air, all of which had lower costs. So now, with all of the management answering to the “shareholders” and “owners” airlines, run like corporations, have adjusted their business models for maximum profit. Ironically, SWA is beginning to look more like what we consider a legacy airline as the industry is evolving again. As a second generation airline employee, It’s been really sad watching the glamor of the airlines disappear. When I was growing up, people dressed up to fly. However, it is still a dynamic and exciting industry.

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