Southwest Airlines’ Unique Boarding Process Explained

Southwest Airlines’ Unique Boarding Process Explained

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Southwest Airlines does things very differently than other airlines in the United States. Arguably the most distinctive aspect of the Southwest travel experience is how the airline boards planes. Some people love it, while others hate it.

During my recent trip to Austin, I flew Southwest for the first time in years, so I wanted to write a post about the carrier’s boarding process. In the next installment I’ll be reviewing the flight as such.

How boarding works on Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is the only major airline in the world that doesn’t assign seats. Rather the airline has a very different boarding process — the order of passenger boarding is determined by the “position” someone is in, and as a result that’s also the order in which people can pick seats once on the plane.

If you ask me, Southwest’s boarding process is quite polarizing. On the one hand, it’s often referred to as a “cattle call,” and at times it can get a bit frantic, especially toward the end of the boarding process. On the other hand, it’s surprisingly orderly, much more so than on many other airlines.

Southwest assigns boarding positions rather than seats

Southwest Airlines passengers are assigned specific boarding positions, consisting of a letter and then a number:

  • You’ll either be in group A, B, or C, with A being allowed to board first, B being allowed to board second, and C being allowed to board last
  • You’ll be given a specific number within that range, which determines the order in which you can board within each group

In other words, the person with boarding position A1 can board first, while the person with boarding position C60 can board last (if the number gets that high on a particular flight). While other airlines board passengers based on larger zones, on Southwest there’s quite literally a person-by-person priority for boarding.

Southwest Airlines has a unique boarding process

The logistics of boarding Southwest flights

With most airlines, you kind of just have a mob that storms the gate when boarding is about to start. By comparison, Southwest’s boarding process is quite civilized. Southwest’s gates typically have six big “markers,” each of which lists numbers. On the left side you’ll see numbers 1-30, and on the right side you’ll see numbers 31-60. Each sign indicates where you should stand based on your boarding position, with ranges of five numbers.

Southwest Airlines boarding gate
Southwest Airlines boarding gate

As you can tell, at each given point this setup can accommodate up to 60 people, with 30 on each side. There are then monitors at the very front of this line, which indicate whether groups A, B, or C are boarding. In other words, once group C is boarding, the up to 60 people will be able to line up.

Southwest Airlines boarding gate

You’ll want to line up in the exact area where your number is. In other words, if group C boarding starts, and you’re assigned position C2, you’d want to stand in the 1-5 section. It’s customary to ask those around you what their position is, so you can be sure you’re in the right order (in other words, you’d want to make sure you’re behind C1 and in front of C3).

Southwest Airlines boarding gate

While everyone does have to line up with this system, there’s not really a rush or panic, unlike on some other airlines. There’s no need to get in line a long time before boarding. Rather you can line up just a couple of minutes before boarding starts, and get in the appropriate line. Just make sure that you don’t line up until your general group is being boarded. In other words, if you’re in group C, don’t get in line until group A and group B are totally boarded.

Southwest Airlines family boarding & more

We’re used to airlines offering to pre-board families, those needing extra time, military, etc. How does that work on Southwest Airlines?

  • Southwest allows family boarding between groups A and B; this allows up to two adults traveling with a child six years old or younger to board at this time, assuming they’re not already in group A
  • Southwest allows active duty US military (with a valid ID) to board between groups A and B, assuming they’re not already in group A
  • Southwest allows those requiring extra time to board between groups A and B, ahead of family boarding, assuming they’re not already in group A

As you can tell, the intent is to provide these passengers the opportunity to sit together, though only after the first set of passengers board, and are able to get the best seats (bulkheads, exit rows, etc.).

Note that the only passengers who can board before group A are those in wheelchairs. On some routes there are quite a few wheelchair passengers, so often many of the best seats will be occupied by those travelers.

How Southwest boarding positions are determined

Southwest Airlines boarding priority is determined based on when you check-in. To secure the best possible boarding position, you’ll want to check-in online exactly 24 hours out. The closer to departure you check-in, the worse your boarding priority will be.

Below I’ll talk about some of the ways to get upgraded boarding, but checking in early is generally going to be your best bet. Now, I’d note that just because you check-in exactly 24 hours out doesn’t mean you’ll have a great boarding position. For example, I checked in 24 hours in advance (to the second), and I was assigned position B16. In other words, 75 people (A1-60 and B1-15) had higher priority for boarding than I did.

Still, if you check in exactly 24 hours out, you’ll almost certainly be able to avoid a middle seat, if that’s your goal.

I should also mention that if you’re traveling with others but don’t have consecutive boarding groups, you can either board separately, or can board with the lower priority. However, you can’t have someone else board with your higher priority. Southwest also doesn’t allow reserving seats for others once onboard.

Southwest Airlines boarding gate

How to secure early boarding on Southwest

As mentioned above, checking in 24 hours out is the best way to secure a decent boarding position. However, how do you secure the best boarding positions, if the goal is to get a bulkhead seat or an exit row? There are a few things to consider:

  • If you purchase a Business Select fare (Southwest’s most premium fares), this automatically comes with A1-15 boarding
  • If you have Southwest Rapid Rewards A-List status, you’ll receive a boarding position immediately behind Business Select, so you can expect it to generally be in the A16-A30 range
  • You can pay for EarlyBird Check-In, where Southwest will automatically check you in 36 hours before departure; while this should get you a good boarding position (almost always in zone A), note that it doesn’t guarantee a specific boarding priority, as you’re behind Business Select customers and A-List members
  • The day of departure you can purchase upgraded boardings in positions A1-15, subject to availability; note that this will only be available if all the Business Select fares weren’t purchased

Having co-branded Southwest Airlines credit cards can potentially help you secure early boarding as well:

Southwest Airlines doesn’t assign seats

Is Southwest’s boarding process awesome or awful?

People seem to either love or hate Southwest Airlines’ boarding process. Let me share my take on that based on a couple of different factors.

Southwest’s boarding is surprisingly orderly

While some people like to refer to Southwest’s boarding process as a “cattle call,” in my experience this offers one of the most organized boarding processes in terms of how people line up in the gate area.

On other airlines, people tend to crowd the gate area even when it isn’t their turn to board. Meanwhile at Southwest, everyone has an exact spot where they’re supposed to be, and that also minimizes the unnecessary crowding.

Personally I’m a bit surprised by how consistently orderly the Southwest boarding process seems to be, since there’s a bit of a learning curve to understanding this, compared to other airlines. I guess it shows you that Southwest has quite a few loyal customers who are used to this system.

Southwest boarding is surprisingly orderly

I don’t like not having an assigned seat

While the boarding process is pretty organized in the gate area, I find it to be a different story once onboard, at least on a full flight. I know in theory the open seating concept is supposed to speed up boarding, but that doesn’t necessarily match my experience, at least based on the flight that I took.

There were all kinds of people going to the back of the plane trying to sit together, only to later be coming back “upstream” to find seats. Toward the end of the boarding process, the crew was offering free drinks to anyone willing to move, in order to have a mother and daughter sit together. You had several people trying to reserve seats for others, only to be told they couldn’t do that.

So while I can appreciate that being able to sit anywhere is theoretically efficient, it can become a game of musical chairs if a flight is full.

I do think this process is pretty fair, in the sense that everyone has the same chance of getting at least an aisle or a window seat, by just checking in early. I prefer that to how other airlines like to charge even for regular economy seats.

However, as an elite member and frequent flyer, personally I prefer knowing exactly where I’ll be sitting, so that I can plan my flight accordingly. For example, if I’m going to be in a middle seat, I’ll probably just load entertainment on a personal device, while otherwise I might plan on trying to work the entire flight.

People either love or hate Southwest’s boarding

Bottom line

Southwest Airlines takes a different approach to boarding than other airlines. Rather than assigning seats, the airline has open seating, and allows passengers to board in a specific order.

Some people love Southwest’s boarding process, as it’s a rather fair way to go about boarding, and it’s also quite organized. However, many don’t like not having an assigned seat, and find it to be kind of chaotic once onboard.

What do you make of Southwest’s boarding process? Do you love it or hate it? Any tips I missed?

Conversations (45)
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  1. Javan Guest

    It's a trip how people act like WN's boarding process is rocket science. You have a letter and a number. Is your letter or number called? Get up and stand at the clearly-marked posts and signs. It wasn't called? Just stay seated.

    Literally the only difference between this and other carriers (and I'm a TOTAL AvGeek) is that there's no assigned seating. Never have I seen a confrontation ensue. But I'm also aware that the general public even can't read maps...

  2. EnviroBK Guest

    Agree with other commenters: my preference is to select a seat in advance. Don’t have the time to go online 24 hours in advance to get a boarding position. I’ve paid for the position, then have to deal with all the games people play to block seats with their sweaters, saving for friends, etc. For long flights, I go business class, and there’s no similar option on SW.

    Other airlines want some SW customers,...

    Agree with other commenters: my preference is to select a seat in advance. Don’t have the time to go online 24 hours in advance to get a boarding position. I’ve paid for the position, then have to deal with all the games people play to block seats with their sweaters, saving for friends, etc. For long flights, I go business class, and there’s no similar option on SW.

    Other airlines want some SW customers, so they created Basic Economy. With my status, I wouldn’t loose much with BE, except I’d get fewer points. The whole “point” of the loyalty point system is to lure you into doing something you wouldn’t do otherwise, such as take one airline over another, use a different credit card, reserve a car or hotel through a certain website, or just fly to top off your status. And, I’ll admit that it works on me, so I don’t fly Southwest or Basic Economy and I stick with preferred airlines to earn status, and occasionally take mileage runs. Perhaps I’m a pawn doing my master’s bidding, but I’m happy and I get the seat that I want. Hey American, you’ve been dangling Concierge Key in front of me for too long, just tell me what to do. Your wish is my command.

  3. Tom Guest

    Those who have priority boarding (wheelchair etc.) should not be allowed to sit in the 1sr row (bulkhead) thus allowing those traveling business select to sit there if desired.

    1. Loren Guest

      Are you joking Tom? Do you know how difficult it is for we disabled people to even get dressed, go to and through the airport and hopefully arrive at our destination for medical care? Be happy you have the privilege of having the ability to work and travel freely. We hope this never happens to you. You must be a narcissistic sociopath. We feel sorry for your family to be afflicted with such a selfish person in their lives. Shame on you.

  4. Carol Ann Parnell Guest

    I am not young. I have had to sit on the floor or on my suitcase in line to have a chance of getting a decent seat. I travel alone. It would be even a worse problem if I was traveling with others. Crazy system meant for agressive youngsters.

  5. Schar Gold

    Ive only flown Southwest once because a company was flying me out for a conference. I absolutely hated the entire experience and will never willingly fly them again, its just not for me.

    Happy for those that are loyal and love flying Southwest but its a no from me dawg.

  6. Ted Kalota Guest

    The $30. (one-way) early-bird check-in is a terrible scam by Southwest. It is an all or nothing proposition. What I mean by this is no matter what happens Southwest steals your money even if they do not provide the service you think your buying. Case in point say you've purchased a ticket with automatic check-in if that flight changes for any reason you lose your status for early check-in and must pay again. Under no...

    The $30. (one-way) early-bird check-in is a terrible scam by Southwest. It is an all or nothing proposition. What I mean by this is no matter what happens Southwest steals your money even if they do not provide the service you think your buying. Case in point say you've purchased a ticket with automatic check-in if that flight changes for any reason you lose your status for early check-in and must pay again. Under no circumstances will your $30 be refunded or applied to another flight. I said never again fly Southworst when the airline changed my flight and refused to honor my early-bird status on the new flight they had changed. I was told sorry we're keeping that money your welcome to pay us again if you want early-bird check-in. This is nothing short of stealing.

  7. John T Guest

    I have tried it and hate it. If it was so great other airlines would have adopted it.
    I have no issues queueing up in a particular spot but it's always chaos I'm onboard as everyone tries to save seats and bend the rules. It is so much easier when a computer does the assignments for you.

  8. Chad Guest

    The boarding process is actually to turn around and go back home because your flight is cancelled.

  9. Grey Diamond

    The big problem with this system is that it punishes people who have difficulty checking in online or who have a delayed connecting flight. So if your flight doesn't let you check in online for some reason and you have to wait until you are at the airport, you are at the end of the queue. And if you are connecting, and your connecting flight is delayed, even if you paid for priority boarding, you...

    The big problem with this system is that it punishes people who have difficulty checking in online or who have a delayed connecting flight. So if your flight doesn't let you check in online for some reason and you have to wait until you are at the airport, you are at the end of the queue. And if you are connecting, and your connecting flight is delayed, even if you paid for priority boarding, you don't get any benefit because if you aren't there in time, you can't get a decent seat choice.

  10. Gerry Guest

    I don't like it my husband was in B group with a low number and I was in C group last person to board the plane I was lucky that I still got to sit with him other wise I would of been pissed

  11. iamhere Guest

    Perhaps there is a bit of both that could be good. The Southwest boarding procedure with an assigned seat. Regarding the comments about people not really being disabled, why can't they require proof? This reminds me of the service animals where airlines finally had to implement and enforce stricter rules due to people taking advantage of the system.

  12. glenn t Diamond

    Am I imagining it, or is Ben's previously fractured bromance with AmericanAirlines now back on the rails, and his ire is now focussed on SouthWest's deficiencies?

  13. Kevin Mau Guest

    The real issue for the unorganized boarding processing is caused by the outdated terminal structure. Meaning is are no waiting area for lines to be formed prior to each boarding to be called. If you look at big hubs in Asia , you will find huge empty space for each class to wait in line. Good examples (from my memories): HKG, HND, NRT.

  14. D. Gremillon Guest

    SW airlines has become the bus station and buses for the U.S. I'd rather drive my own vehicle. I recently flew from Nashville to Heathrow on British Air and almost believed I was flying Southwest.

  15. Henry Guest

    I would not say "love it or hate it", but Southwest boarding system is better than the mob scene 15 minutes before boarding on any other airline - domestic or international.

  16. Linda Guest

    The only negative with this process, there are heaps of people that pretend to be disabled and get on before others without paying the extra price to get early boarding. And they get off the plane first as well. I have seen many miracles were people that use canes, fold them up and can walk faster than I can getting to baggage area. I have seen people use wheelchairs to get on the plane that...

    The only negative with this process, there are heaps of people that pretend to be disabled and get on before others without paying the extra price to get early boarding. And they get off the plane first as well. I have seen many miracles were people that use canes, fold them up and can walk faster than I can getting to baggage area. I have seen people use wheelchairs to get on the plane that are totally cured and can walk on their own getting off the plane. I have written to Southwest about this situation on several occasions, but of course, they cannot ask you to prove you are disabled, and can't force you to stay on the plane until others disembark.

    1. glenn t Diamond

      Linda, wheelchairs are used largely for the airline's convenience. I hope you do nor begrude the truly disabled that facility.
      There are also many who need assistance as they are unable to walk long distances through terminals with luggage who are eligible for assistance. The airlines one-size-fits-all solution is to put all these passengers into a wheelchair and deliver them to the boarging gate, or perhaps to the door of the aircraft. After that...

      Linda, wheelchairs are used largely for the airline's convenience. I hope you do nor begrude the truly disabled that facility.
      There are also many who need assistance as they are unable to walk long distances through terminals with luggage who are eligible for assistance. The airlines one-size-fits-all solution is to put all these passengers into a wheelchair and deliver them to the boarging gate, or perhaps to the door of the aircraft. After that 99% are on their own. Crew (except in the US) will help with stowage of hand luggage.
      So the idea is to minimise the time it takes an employee to get a passenger from point A to B to fulfil their legal obligation; nothing more.
      Oh, and consider that that person in the wheelchair would give anything to be ablebodied enough to be able to breeze through without anyone's help.
      I think something like 99% need the assistance, contrary to what you seem to think.

    2. Teresa Guest

      Also some people have clotting issues and need specific aisle seats so they can move their legs while being seated. After the flight they need to stand and move to keep from getting blood clots. You can’t see all disabilities from the outside.

  17. GBOAC Diamond

    Couple of new thoughts to add to this thread. (Full disclosure -- I'm one of those who luv the Southwest boarding process).
    First SW has many continuing flights where the plane arrives, many but not all passengers disembark, and others stay on to a following stop. If you've flown Southwest and continuing on, you know the routine. Stay in your seat until the crew completes the count of through passengers, then you are free...

    Couple of new thoughts to add to this thread. (Full disclosure -- I'm one of those who luv the Southwest boarding process).
    First SW has many continuing flights where the plane arrives, many but not all passengers disembark, and others stay on to a following stop. If you've flown Southwest and continuing on, you know the routine. Stay in your seat until the crew completes the count of through passengers, then you are free to change seats. Guess which seats become the favorites at that point. So if you are boarding a through flight, the A1-A15 passengers may not find their preferred seats up front.
    Something else that SW does to make the boarding process more efficient is to offer two free checked bags. That really reduces the blockages in the aisle as passengers as less likely to be stuffing oversize luggage into the overhead.

  18. oletrucker Guest

    I totally agree with southwest's boarding progress to a point more and more people are using wheelchairs and hopefully rightfully to get pre-boarding so even if you upgrade to A1, you could still be in row 5 which is no big deal but when you sit back and watch you see abuse of the system that's what aggravates me. Anyhow it's still my airline been flying on them for 30 years and still here to talk about it!

  19. riku2 Guest

    What happens if you are late to the gate and boarding has already started? if you are A20 and they are lining up people for group B already ? Do you just go and stand in front of passenger B1?

    1. Deborah Guest

      Yes. You get to cut the line if your boarding group has already gone just like the other airlines.

  20. JOHN GREEN Guest

    Boarding Process??
    With over 1700 cancellations today alone , boarding isnt anyone's focus if they are flying southwest!

  21. James Kees Guest

    It’s very annoying for a tall person to find a short person sitting in the exit seats, knowing that the tall person needs legroom. I blame the airlines for this.

    1. Pete Guest

      I stopped reading Skytrax reviews because of non-stop comments about like "my husband is 6'5 and the economy seat was very cramped. We were not offered an exit row or an upgrade at check-in. Disgusting."

      If you want the seats with leg room, you gotta pay the money to board first.

    2. Ricport Guest

      But on the clown car with wings that is WN, you don’t have that option.

  22. derek Guest

    I know someone that doesn't want to board first. He wants to choose his seatmate, choosing someone who is not obese.

  23. Super Gold

    The boarding process is consistently orderly because there's such a focus on exactly where you are in line. With the other airlines you just have a general boarding group, and the gate agents are hit or miss if they actually enforce someone trying to sneak through with an earlier group. Because everyone knows exactly where they need to be, it puts the onus on the gate agent AND the passengers to call out cheaters.

    ...

    The boarding process is consistently orderly because there's such a focus on exactly where you are in line. With the other airlines you just have a general boarding group, and the gate agents are hit or miss if they actually enforce someone trying to sneak through with an earlier group. Because everyone knows exactly where they need to be, it puts the onus on the gate agent AND the passengers to call out cheaters.

    Personally, I love this system, and would like to see a variant implemented with assigned seats. Ideally this would be with front and back boarding, where Group A1-16 would be First Class, and then A17-A60 would be the seats immediately behind First and would board through the back of the plane which allows people to board quickly (because the line isn't halting every time someone is putting their bag up because the person in front of you in line is in front of you on the plane).

  24. Carol Guest

    In my opinion, I feel that Southwest’s new boarding policy for families is discriminatory and unfair to all of us. Why are elderly or those without children being punished or treated as less important? If families want to sit together, they can book on an airline with assigned seats. I am offended by this discriminatory plan.

    1. Mike L Guest

      Same goes for you Carol, if you want an assigned seat, you can book another airline. Families are the bread and butter of Southwest. This is one of the main reasons (along with the companion pass, and free checked baggage) that my family flies southwest. When it is just me, I just check in 24 hours early, and I have never had to worry about not getting an Aisle seat or Window.

  25. mdande7 Diamond

    I think the previous versions of their boarding process were much more cattle call. Previously you didn't have an exact number just a letter and it got pretty chaotic. I don't hate the new process, don't love it. With all airlines not having change fees I don't fly Southwest much (ever) because they are generally quite a bit more expensive, at least out of Seattle) and I can't use their program for aspirational flights...

  26. grichard Guest

    I thought that Southwest tried very hard to avoid taking any sort of official position on whether saving seats was permissible. Did that change at some point?

    1. NedsKid Member

      They don't have an official position on it. Flight attendants are basically left to enforce or not as they see fit. Most stay out of it. I've found it frustrating when boarding with a high A boarding card and find somebody planted in the exit row saying the other seats are reserved (for people who got on with C positions). Flight attendant just stood there and shrugged his shoulders.

    2. iamhere Guest

      That's the real issue. The flight attendants not enforcing the rules. So people get away with doing what they are not supposed to do and then will continue to do so.

  27. Luke Guest

    That sounds annoying as hell. I'd rather find a different carrier and pick where I wanted to be.

    1. Ricport Member

      Trust me - it is as annoying as hell. And this - and the lack of assigned seats - are two of the main reasons why I avoid WN like the plague.

  28. Mark Guest

    Southwest's Boarding is wonderful except for the pre boards at times. Many need a wheelchair to get on the plane. They then take the front preferred seats. However, by some miracle their maladies are cured by the time the plane lands. Many often run off the plane. Southwest has tried to control this issue, but to no avail. It is maddening to see people game the system, yet that is the price for "cheap" flights.

    1. NedsKid Member

      I had A1 once and got on board and tried to take the bulkhead window to be told by the flight attendant that they were reserving the first 4 rows for those needing assistance and I needed to sit further aft.

      I think Southwest is well intentioned with the boarding process and it is actually relatively organized and works quickly... from the gate perspective. The Ops agent boarding the flights tends to be more...

      I had A1 once and got on board and tried to take the bulkhead window to be told by the flight attendant that they were reserving the first 4 rows for those needing assistance and I needed to sit further aft.

      I think Southwest is well intentioned with the boarding process and it is actually relatively organized and works quickly... from the gate perspective. The Ops agent boarding the flights tends to be more apt to toe the line as far as rules go and doesn't seem to have an issue saying No from my observations. But they leave way too much open to interpretation after that point. The crews have free reign to handle it however they want once on board.

      I will say I do really like the Southwest ground experience but I generally dislike the onboard experience. Airplanes that aren't really clean, crews making up their own rules, the annoying drink service process, etc.

  29. David Guest

    Just don’t expect to get a front seat on a wintertime flight to Florida, even if you are A1. The 20+ wheelchair passengers plus their spouse and entourage all board before you.

  30. Ariote Guest

    Leff gets on the plane and throws his coat, briefcase, and shoes on seats around him to save them. He has no problem with it.

  31. Lee Guest

    Anyone remember AirCal? (Founded in 1967 and bought by AA in 1987.) It had no seat assignments. There was no formalized boarding process. Just come on up. Southwest gave organization to the model . . . and monetized it.

    1. DSK Guest

      I do and here’s a piece of trivia for you. Haven’t tested it recently but a few years ago I tried calling 800-4-AIRCAL and it was still a working number at AA. Somebody from group reservations answered.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Linda Guest

The only negative with this process, there are heaps of people that pretend to be disabled and get on before others without paying the extra price to get early boarding. And they get off the plane first as well. I have seen many miracles were people that use canes, fold them up and can walk faster than I can getting to baggage area. I have seen people use wheelchairs to get on the plane that are totally cured and can walk on their own getting off the plane. I have written to Southwest about this situation on several occasions, but of course, they cannot ask you to prove you are disabled, and can't force you to stay on the plane until others disembark.

3
Chad Guest

The boarding process is actually to turn around and go back home because your flight is cancelled.

2
Grey Diamond

The big problem with this system is that it punishes people who have difficulty checking in online or who have a delayed connecting flight. So if your flight doesn't let you check in online for some reason and you have to wait until you are at the airport, you are at the end of the queue. And if you are connecting, and your connecting flight is delayed, even if you paid for priority boarding, you don't get any benefit because if you aren't there in time, you can't get a decent seat choice.

2
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