Southwest Airlines Boarding; A Blast from the Past

By Robert Mark on November 14th, 2007

Southwest Airlines has again proven that running an airline – at least from a customer’s perspective – doesn’t need to simply fluctuate between chaos and more chaos.

On the way back from the Blog World Expo conference in Las Vegas last week, I had a chance to try out the airline’s new passenger boarding system. I’d give it 9 out of a possible 10 points.

In the recent past, the trick was to check in early online to be selected for the “A” team – the first 50 seats.

Problem was you’d still need to line up early at the airport gate since seating in the “A,” “B,” or “C” group was first come first serve. If you checked in late online and showed up within 15 minutes of boarding time, a “B” passenger could easily wind up in a middle seat.

Unfortunately, the Southwest system airline used until last week also meant either standing in line at the gate for half and hour, or sitting on the floor, something that turned my wife off to the carrier from day one.

Boarding 2007

Now things have changed. Passengers still check in online for an A, B or C pass, but now the computer adds a number at check-in. If I’m “A 21,” for instance, I don’t need to stand in line any longer.

Until boarding time the other day, everyone in Vegas sat – in chairs mind you – reading or talking, not sitting on a hard floor.

Near departure time, we all found our way to the proper line in groups of 25 for a few minutes wait and sequenced ourselves just fine.

We all boarded with no fuss although a few Southwest employees told me some customers were miffed at the change.

For those of you wondering, yes … this numbering system is an electronic version of what Southwest used a decade ago when the first people at the gate received plastic cards with their boarding sequence.

Nice to see an airline realize that maybe simply tweaking an old system is better than trying to reinvent the wheel.

Now, if I could just get Southwest to send me an e-mail 24 hours in advance of departure time to remind me to check in.

So why only a 9 out of 10, despite how much I say I love Southwest?

Every company – even Southwest has room to improve.

I remember when they only gave out peanuts. Now it’s nuts and snack boxes.

Next thing you know these folks are going to be serving food!

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7 Responses to “Southwest Airlines Boarding; A Blast from the Past”

  1. Scott near SMF Says:

    Now I would like to see your experience if you have flown post 11/08/07 with more changes (Business Select, A-Listers, Freedom Awards) kicking in.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Good point Scott.

    Having used what was essentially the upgarded service at Spirit when they flew out of ORD, I’d spend the few extra bucks for early boarding at Southwest.

    My guess is other people will too so long as the price break seems reasonable.

    In fact, I think I’ll get back up on the Southwest site and see how it might change a flight I’m planning on.

    Has anyone else out there tried any of this BTW?

  3. unknown Says:

    I work as a customer care rep in reservations and people are loving the new way we board the planes. It’s worth the upgrade to get an priority boarding. GO SOUTHWEST!!!

  4. Chris Says:

    I’m a Customer Service Agent at the airport and our customers are definitely loving the new boarding. As with any change, we’ll always have the few who complain, but at least the vast majority appreciate the change. As for the Business Select fare, it is proving extremely popular. I have done quite a few upgrades at the airport after I explain to people what it’s about.

    And btw, we (at SWA) are loving the changes as well. I can tell you from our perspective at the airport that it definitely allows us to board the aircraft much faster and much more organized. I think this is just the start of some very nice (and necessary) changes that will occur at SWA.



  6. Dr. Dave Says:

    I absolutely LUV Southwest’s new boarding procedure. Having flown them 9 times in the past 2 weeks, I can say that the new system works great! it faster, more organized and orderly and it has reduced my SWA travel stress level by a factor of 10.

    Gate agent could be a little more helpful in explaining the process to everyone but remember its new to them too. The new boarding method is a major step away from the cattle call stigma SWA has carried over the years (especially for the business travellers who generally pay the higher fares).

    Complaints usually come from those who fly maybe 1-2 times a year and perhaps not used to the no assigned seat process – the only irritant regulars have is having to stand in line 45 min+ with the rookies. (Or the 30-40 families with small children who pre-boarded – I’ve been on flights to MCO that half pre-boards – no BS!) But they changed that too! Hurray!

    Don’t like ’em? – don’t fly ’em…I’m sure American, United and the others will take your money, give you your assigned middle seat in the back of the plane (since all exit rows and aisles saved for their frequent flyers )unless you want to pay extra, no snack, and as an added bonus, a snarly attitude at no extra charge.

  7. Rob Mark Says:

    Thanks for your note Dave.

    I remember too when flying Southwest was considered right up there with herding goats as a way to move from one location to another.

    In a private note, one reader told me it just shows you how far the more traditional airlines have slipped.

    I vehemently disagreed.

    Yes the other major carriers have sunk sorely in the customer service ratings, but Southwest has risen considerably.

    And let’s be serious … wouldn’t we all like to be Southwest stockholders? Didn’t they just make it past their 125th consecutive dividend?

    It’s not luck any longer.

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