I’ll summarize the Southwest Airlines boarding policy:
- There is no assigned seating.
- When you check in, you are assigned a letter (A through C) and a number. The A’s board first, then B’s, then C’s. For a given letter, the order in which you board is based on which number you have.
- To get ‘A’ boarding, you have to pay $10. But, paying $10 doesn’t guarantee you an ‘A’ (they take your $10 either way).
- People who check in earlier get a better letter/number.
Most other airlines have the following boarding policy:
- Seating is assigned.
- When you buy the ticket, you can pick your seat based on what’s still available.
- When you check in, you have the option to change your seat.
In my opinion, the SWA policy is bad for the consumer. Here are some reasons:
- If you are traveling with a child older than 3, they do not guarantee that you will have a seat next to your child. If you have ‘C’ boarding for example, you will likely have to try to talk people who are already seated into moving so that you can sit by your child. Obviously, no one is going to want to sit next to your 5 year old, so people will move. But it can be pretty stressful for the parents.
- Similarly, if you are traveling with a friend, there is no way to be sure you will be able to sit next to him/her unless you have an early letter/number.
- Boarding is more aggressive. No one wants to sit next to a baby or a snoring arm-rest-hog, so people fight it out.
Without seeing any benefit to the consumer with the SWA policy, I came to the conclusion that it must be revenue-driven. I started thinking about it. Does the policy cut down on boarding time? Possibly, but I don’t think by much. That couldn’t be it. I kept thinking. Eventually it hit me: they have fewer empty seats on each plane.
Assigned seating: Imagine a tiny airplane with 3 seats on each side of the aisle and two rows. Consider the following diagram, where blue indicates a seat that is taken and white indicates a seat that is available.
If you tried to purchase two tickets, I think it would show that there weren’t two tickets available. That’s because the assumption is that you want to sit together, and there aren’t two tickets available together. (if I’m wrong about this then I really don’t understand the SWA policy)
Alternatively, SWA just sells all of the seats and lets the passengers sort it out later. And yes, despite having a seating policy that I think ensures a fairly full flight, SWA still overbooks flights.