Back on the road again. This time it was to head east to visit my father for Father’s Day. I got tickets on Southwest Airlines leaving on Thursday June 17th. I haven’t flown Southwest in quite sometime and I forgot the importance of checking in as soon as possible.
I am sure most of you know, but Southwest does not do assigned seats. Instead when you check in, up to 24 hours before take off, you are assigned a letter (A,B or C) and a number (1-60). People are boarded by group and number where A1 goes first and C60 pretty much gets the worse seat in the house.
During check in time, I was working on covering the Boeing 787 ZA005’s first flight, so I was rightfully distracted. I could have checked in at 12:35pm, but didn’t get to it until 4:00pm. Dang it, B28. At least I didn’t get the much dreaded C group.
Some people LOVE the check-in game, seeing what the best letter/number combination they can get, but if you aren’t into the game and care about where you sit, you can pay a bit more to secure a seat.
You can purchase a Business Select ticket, which gets you a boarding pass in the A1-A15 range, a free drink (is free, really free if you pay more?), additional rewards credit and by-pass security lines at participating airports. If that is too rich for your blood, you can also do Early Bird check-in and pay $10 extra. Southwest will automatically check you in 12hrs before the general population, securing you a better seat. I say a “better seat” not a “guaranteed good seat” because there is no knowing what you might get. Southwest does not limit the number of people that can sign up for Early Bird check-in, so hypothetically if a lot of people pay the extra $10, you could still end up in the B-group (oh the horror). But to most the $10 is worth not having to remember to check in and making sure you don’t end up in the middle seat.
My father is in love with Southwest and that is pretty much all he flies. His goal is to still get the lowest number possible. Even though he doesn’t get Business Select, he sure gets the Early Bird special every time. When I told him I didn’t get the Early Bird check in and had B29 I felt he was almost going to disown me (ok, not really).
He admits it doesn’t really make sense, but he just needs the lower number. He feels special having a lower number and is embarrassed to get in the B-group. I don’t think he has ever been in the C-group. I often wonder if he did get in the C-group if he would actually take the flight or just cancel. The $10 is well worth it to him and I assume to others as well.
Through my years of flying on Southwest, the process of getting people in their A, B or C groups has changed quite a bit. Back in the day passengers wouldn’t be given numbers, just A, B or C plastic cards. People would line up hours before the flight. And I mean hours. It was like people camping out for the newest gadget or the hottest movie, just crazy (and I normally love camping in my VW, but not this sort of camping). Now Southwest boarding areas have poles that tell you where you should stand based on your number and TV screens that tell you when those numbers are for A, B or C.
After experiencing this a few times, I have it down, but the first time I saw this new system, I was quite confused. For some reason passengers in Seattle seemed to have more problems with it than in Tampa. Even at all three airports, there were quite a few people that really had a hard time figuring it out, but we all managed to board the plane in a timely manner.
Some people really have an entitlement of their placement in line and I guess I can understand that. However, I am pretty laid back, but I seem to upset people if I have B15, yet I am standing where B17 should. I am actually letting people go in front of me, but that isn’t ok because I am messing with the system. Almost every Southwest flight there seems to be some passenger whose duty it is to make sure people are lined up perfectly.
It seems a lot of people really love the way Southwest boards the plane. Although it is not a horrible method, I enjoy having my assigned seat. I want to know I have a window seat and I will be sitting next to my travel partner. If I get my ticket late, I know I might be in the center seat and I can prepare for that. If I have a middle seat at the front of the plane, I might check my bag, since I don’t want to risk not having the room. With Southwest, no matter what your boarding assignment might be, there is no guarantee for where I will be sitting and I don’t like that.
Even though I feel I am being jipped in some way, it all worked out. Even though with all four legs I had bad seating numbers (from B15 to B49) I was always able to sit next to my girlfriend and I got a window seat. I spoke with Brad Hawkins, a Southwest communications person, over the phone to see if Southwest was looking at ever going to assigned seats. He told me that they never say never, but when they last asked passengers what they wanted 2:1 wanted to keep the open seating, but quite a few voiced concerns about the boarding process. That is when Southwest started their pole boarding, making it a little more organized.
Boarding in this method, also provides them with additional revenue, which lets them keep prices lower and not charge the fees we see popping up with other airlines. It would also cost Southwest additional money, to set up a seat assignment system, against raising fares. No matter what you opinion is, it looks like open seating will be around for quite some time.
After going through the line up process, passengers started to back up in the jetway. The captain from the SEA-DEN leg came out and was talking to us. He ended up talking to me about what turbulence we could expect from SEA to DEN and why. It was pretty awesome he was out there. Those sort of things are what make the Southwest employees well known for their customer service and I always wonder why more airlines don’t encourage the pilot/customer interaction that Southwest pilots seem to have (plus I always love the ties they wear).
So, not only do I like to get a window seat, but one where I can easily get those winglet photos. You know those ones right? Photos with the airline’s logo/name on the winglet with other stuff in the background. They are extremely common, but dang it, I like to take them.
The gate location of the plane from SEA to DEN was hidden and I wasn’t able to check out what model it was (well duh on a 737, but what hundred?). When I got on the plane, I could easily tell it was an older Boeing 737. The seats looked brand new, it was very clean, but the aged bins, stark white walls and old lights and air vents gave it away. Sure enough it was a classic Boeing 737-300.
On both legs to Tampa, flight attendants told passengers the flight would be completely full and make sure to share. They made multiple statements to the fact that no one will be sitting with an empty seat, so be sure not to try to save it (each announcement was done in a friendly and fun manner). However, both the flights had quite a few empty seats (lucky to get empty middle seat from DEN to TPA, but in VERY last row). Maybe the flight was booked, but not all passengers made it or maybe it is a good motivator for people to share and get seated as soon as possible. Either way, not a big deal, but I have found when other airlines say it will be a 100% full flight, it is.
Unfortunately none of my flights had wireless internet. Southwest is currently installing Row44 on to their entire fleet. If I have internet access, I could care less what seating letter/number I have, but I will have to wait a little bit longer, but it will be happening.
Not that long ago Southwest was known as the “no-frills” airline. Yet now, they seem to be the “frills airline.” When others are charging for checked bags, carry-ons, getting an exit row, etc Southwest is doing what they always have been doing, providing cheap and friendly transportation to destinations around the United States. They have a very loyal following (including my father) and I think they really build a strong and positive relationship with most passengers. I look forward to flying with them again, but I will remember to check in a bit earlier next time or maybe even shell out the extra $10.