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New Seating Policy Coming for Southwest

Carol Sottili

Anyone who has flown Southwest Airlines knows the drill. No seat assignments. You check in online as soon as you can -- 24 hours before the flight leaves -- because you want to be in the coveted A group. But if you can't do that, and wind up in the B group, or if something goes terribly wrong, and you get the dreaded C boading pass, you will likely wind up standing in the cattle shute at the airport an hour before flight time.

A student of human behavior can have real fun watching the scene. Most everyone will sit at first, waiting for the first person to head to the line. And then the mad dash is on. No one wants a middle seat. Even worse, no one wants to have to check his or her luggage at the last minute because there is no more space in the overhead bin. So even if you need to use the bathroom or you would die for a Coke, you don't dare move from the line and lose your place.

Well, the Southwest "cattle call" will soon be history. The discount airline is going to change its boarding policy by early November, but it's not joining the rest of the airline establishment and assigning seats. Instead, when passengers check in, either online or at the airport, they will receive both a letter and a number, and boarding will proceed accordingly.

Business travelers have been whining about the open-seating policy for some time. Last summer, the airline started testing different seating procedures in San Diego. The letter-number system was the clear winner, and they then tested that one out in San Antonio. It worked there, so now it's going systemwide.

"The new boarding complements our open seating and reduces the time our customers spend in line," said Gary Kelly, the airline's chief executive officer, in prepared remarks. "That's right: I'll say it. No more cattle call."

You'll still get an A,B,C designation, but each person will also receive a number 1-30. Passengers will be called up by letter and number, and board in that order.

Most experts are cautiously optimistic. My only question: It may have worked in San Diego and San Antonio, but how are they going to convince a bunch of New Yorkers at Islip Airport to line up in an orderly fashion? What do you think?

By Carol Sottili |  September 21, 2007; 9:31 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Carol Sottili
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It's about time! I'm more concerned however that Southwest will soon be discontinuing their Non-stops between BWI and LAX. How brain-dead is that?! Those flights are always full. Makes me want to re-visit JetBlue or try Virgin America next time I fly to California.

Posted by: Jeff | September 21, 2007 10:07 AM

I love the comment about Islip. People line up way before it's time. And since I'm always an A and always have a bag that's just the limit, I line up, too and sit on the floor. I refuse to check luggage for a flight that's less then one hour. Did that once coming back from Norfolk to BWI and waited longer for my suitcase then I did for the whole flight.

I wish there was a way to check in via telephone. I don't have a Blackberry anymore and my parents don't have Internet, so when I go home to Long Island, checking in 24 hours in advance could be a big issue. I hate getting C.

I'm not happy that they discontinued some flights to/from Islip, either. And are the $29 fares gone for good? Those fares made it cheaper to fly than to drive...

Posted by: 21113 | September 21, 2007 10:21 AM

I like it.

I realize part of Southwest's lower pricing is the lack of assigned seating. But I'm sorry - I don't think it's cute...I think it's a pain in the butt. And long before 9/11, I got to the airport 2 hours before a flight (a legacy from my parents who always have, so we didn't have to rush to a gate or worry about check-in lines), so it's not like I hate flying Southwest because you have to get to the airport too early.

It's the concept that I can book weeks ahead of time, check in early, get to the airport early, and be at my gate early to follow all their rules, but I can still "lose my seat" if I need to go to the bathroom or want to stretch my legs (I've got long legs and bad hips).

When I do those things shortly before boarding, it's because I don't want to disturb those around me with those behaviours during the flight. So by being a conscientious traveler, I will probably "lose" the seat that I would otherwise have gotten on every other airline because I was proactive in my travel habits. It's always smacked me as a little ridiculous and juvenile that they couldn't assign a number along with those letter groups.

There's no reason Southwest can't tack a specific number to their groupings. I think if they do that and stick to their guns about the boarding order, then those NY'ers as Islip will have to stick to it.

If people could line up for the midnight sales of Harry Potter books in an orderly fashion by number, so can Southwest travelers ;)

Posted by: Chasmosaur | September 21, 2007 10:28 AM

Why single out Islip? There are rude people all across America, not just in NY

Posted by: NYC | September 21, 2007 1:07 PM

Have you been to Islip? The flight can be delayed or not arriving for hours and people are lined up (A's and B's)! It's commical. I've flown from BWI to Little Rock, Chapel Hill, Columbus, St. Louis, Albany, and Long Island (several trips) in the last year and they are NOT as "line obsessed" as Islip.

I lived on Long Island for 31 years, BTW. I can comment! In fact, I'd rather fly there then deal with the drivers, but that's a whole other topic.

Posted by: 21113 | September 21, 2007 4:52 PM

More whining probably from the smae group of ladies who have problems with folks reclining their seats. The previous boarding procedures for SW were well known.
You either played by the rules and got the coveted A boarding pass or took your chances because you were too lazy etc. If you snoozed you lost. Stop whining please. Recline your seat fully and enjoy life! I love flying SW because their are always some morons who get their boarding passes late and all want to sit together. Parents if you want to sit with your kid learn the rules and dont expect anyone to change seats for your stupidity and ineptness. And there is nothing worse than a group of friends returning from LV who were too drunk to get their boarding passes early and to the airport early so they could all sit together. Now they have a C boarding pass but want to sit together. ANd then they give you attitude when you dont want to move. They should have to fly in cargo
in dog crates!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 22, 2007 6:24 AM

Maybe the New Yorkers won't line up in an orderly fashion (a debatable point), but I can assure you that any one who dares to try to buck the line and play hanky-panky with their letter and number will be dealt with by the crowd.

Posted by: Used to Fly from Islip | September 22, 2007 11:13 PM

I nearly always fly Southwest, but in all my years of flying them, I have never understood why people form those long lines and wait. The only time I'd consider it is if I were a B...then it seems you have a chance at a good seat if you're in the front of the line and will probably get stuck with something less than ideal if you're at the end. If you're a C, just forget about it and resign yourself to a middle or less than ideal seat and resolve to check in earlier next time. If you're an A, realize that even if you're at the end of the A boarding, you'll still pretty much get a good seat. I'm usually an A, and nearly always the last A to board as I see no point in waiting in line, but I've still never had to go more than 8 rows back to find a seat I like with adequate overhead space.

Posted by: TB | September 24, 2007 3:57 PM

Not everyone has access to a computer, or a phone to call a friend to get them to check in exactly 24 hours in advance. And even if everyone were to check in 24 hours in advance, there's only a finite number of people that can be in the A group. The fact that people have to resort to such trickery tells me that Southwest should be going back to the old system of getting boarding passes at the airport to make sure that people actually get there on time.

Posted by: WDC | September 24, 2007 5:52 PM

WDC if you stay at some place besides a Motel 6 where they leave the gas on for you the concierge will do the check in on SW for you. no fuss no muss. In Vegas while at the Venetian thye take care of it promptly and always seem to get you the coveted A boarding pass. Anther whiner heard from. Stop whing and get a set boy!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2007 8:53 PM

Are there any Internet cafes near where you visit? (I haven't been to Islip in more than 30 years, so I have no idea what it's like anymore.) If so you could check in there. I've done that elsewhere and never had a problem.

Posted by: For 21113 | September 24, 2007 10:48 PM

I get internet service on my Verizon cell phone for $5 a month, and can check in on Southwest, check trains and buses on Metro, check weather in any city, read CNN Headlines and articles - no excuses, guys!

Posted by: Wash DC | September 25, 2007 1:31 PM

I travel A LOT and have flown Southwest to/from Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Islip and other markets. Never have I encountered such rude people--not just Southwest customers--as I have at Islip. On a flight from Islip to Chicago Midway with 15 (no lie) passengers, I was budged in line to board by a priest. I have been shoved out of line at curbside baggage check-in by a family that had about 40 teeth among the four of them and shared some rather ugly words with me when I said, "excuse me. I was here first." Their flight wasn't leaving for another 3 hours; mine was leaving in 40 minutes. The people from Long Island take the cake. I work there and used to live there. Different strokes for different folks, but those folks are unlike any other, in the state of New York or the whole of the US.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 26, 2007 1:25 PM

It's about time. I flew Southwest out of LAX 3 years ago and inspite of A, B, or C designations everyone attempted to board at once and Southwest personnel did nothing to bring order to the situation. It was chaos. For that reason I refused to fly Southwest again until this year. On a flight out of OKC I actually saw a Southwest boarding agent kick a "C" out of the "B" line. Perhaps they've learned that in some situations they've actually lost customers.

Posted by: Bob Given | September 26, 2007 2:44 PM

i call them "needless stress airlines."

still, i fly them all the time. the only reason i hustle to get an A or B is to ensure i can bring all my carryon items on board. but that's not even such an issue anymore because i wind up checking at least one bag holding all my liquid and gel items now (shampoo, deodorant, etc).

the best part used to be when not everyone knew about the online checkin option. it was fun, although kind of evil, to walk up to the A line 5 minutes before boarding, cutting in front of poor folks who had been waiting in line in the front of the C line for an hour.

Posted by: i luv southwest but hate the lines | October 3, 2007 2:08 PM

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