Southwest’s Boarding Process: Why I Both Love And Hate It

Filed Under: Southwest
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I flew Southwest to Havana recently, which is the first time in five years that I flew Southwest.

The reason I don’t fly them has to do with me valuing traditional loyalty programs and a global route network, rather than any issue I have with the airline as such. Southwest is (for the most part) extremely well run, and really the most full service airline in the U.S., as they don’t charge for checked bags and allow free ticket changes. Furthermore, their flight attendants know how to hustle, and could teach the crews at some other carriers a trick or two.

But the part of the Southwest experience I found the most interesting was the boarding process. People have long teased Southwest for their “cattle call” boarding, and this was the first time I’ve flown Southwest and paid attention to the process… and I liked it a lot more than I was expecting… in some ways. It’s very complicated if you haven’t experienced it before (as my dad can attest), so let me explain how Southwest’s boarding works.

How is boarding order determined on Southwest?

On Southwest passengers are broken up into three groups — A, B, and C — and each passenger is given a number in that range, typically from 1 to 60.

The plane is boarded in order of your priority, meaning that A1 boards first, and C60 boards last (assuming there are passengers with those numbers). So while other airlines have zones, Southwest literally has an exact order in which people board.

So first Southwest lines up the people with “A” boarding passes, and you stand in groups of five.


30 people from each zone stand on the left, and 30 on the right, and then the monitors change when they are ready to board the next group.


While many people care about boarding priority in general to ensure they can get their bags in the overhead bins, it’s especially important on Southwest, given that they have open seating, so it also determines where you sit.

How can you secure early boarding on Southwest?

Assuming you don’t want to pay extra for priority boarding, your best bet is to check-in online exactly 24 hours out. If you do so, you’ll almost always get an “A” boarding pass, which means you’ll be among the first third (or so) of people to board. That should be more than enough to secure you a decent seat.

However, there are options to get even better boarding positions than that:

  • If you get the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Card you’ll receive four priority boardings every anniversary year, where you can buy them on the day of departure, and you’ll be reimbursed; this $149 annual fee card comes with a slew of other great benefits, including 7,500 points on your account anniversary each year, and much more
  • If you purchase a BusinessSelect Fare, you’ll be guaranteed a seat in the A1-A15 range
  • A-List members automatically get a boarding position right behind BusinessSelect customers
  • You can pay for EarlyBird Check-In, where Southwest will automatically check you in 36 hours before departure, meaning you’ll typically have a great boarding priority; however, this doesn’t guarantee a specific boarding number, and the priority still comes behind A-List members
  • While not a paid option, families get to board after the A group and before the B group

How chaotic was Southwest boarding?

As I said above, Southwest has historically been known for their “cattle call” boarding. But I’m not sure that’s totally fair, given that this is what the gate looks like for most American flights I take nowadays:


So I was shocked to find how orderly the Southwest boarding process was. Admittedly this is a small sample size, but only about a third of the plane got up when boarding was initially called (those in the A group), everyone seemed to know what was going on, etc.

The process was extremely civilized. People lined up in their “areas,” and could quite easily tell who belonged where. At most people seemed to ask one or two other people about their position — “I’m A32, what are you?”


I thought it was significantly more civilized than the pushing and shoving and crowding I’m used to on other airlines. So I actually love the process Southwest has for letting people on the plane.

What I don’t love, however, is the Southwest policy of not assigning seats. I get the idea, but in practice I found it to be chaos on both of my flights. Admittedly these were flights to and from Havana which is probably a different experience than usual, but it was chaos in both directions.


People were reserving entire rows, the crew specifically announced that people couldn’t reserve seats, but of course that didn’t stop people from taking it upon themselves to do so. Then towards the end of boarding everyone would walk to the back of the plane thinking they’d get an aisle or window there, only to end up coming back to the front of the plane and getting a middle seat.

Bottom line

Perhaps this flight was an exception but I found the process of boarding my Southwest flight to be significantly more civilized than what I’m used to on other airlines. I’m just not a fan of the open seating policy, as it encourages people to reserve seats, spread out in ways they wouldn’t otherwise in hopes of getting an empty middle, etc. But that’s just me, and with the right Southwest credit card you can at least ensure that you’re boarding earlier.

What do you make of Southwest’s boarding process? Was my experience typical for Southwest?

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  1. Ben. I’ve paid for early checkin and still received a b number. I don’t think you’ll ever get an A number just by checking in at 24 hours.

  2. Ben: a couple of comments:
    First your observation about the orderly lining up is quite true. Southwest has refined their boarding so it is just the opposite of a cattle call. You can remain seated until just before your boarding group is called and jump in at the right spot. Contrast that with United where people start lining up 30 minutes before boarding — especially in supposedly priority group 2 which may have north of 50 people in the group.

    On the other hand about checking in exactly 24 hours in advance and getting an A boarding pass. I always spring for early bird boarding and find that half the time I get a low B pass. I’m pretty sure that the chance of getting a A pass by checking in yourself will be rather low


  3. I kinda feel bad for the airlines. No one is ever happy with the boarding process. Delta and American have a million groups, and everyone thinks their status should be a better position than it is. Southwest has its own issues, as you’ve noted. And I find that often, gate agents lose control of the process. Letting SKY on before PREM, for DL, for example. Sometimes they seem to just give up.

    The fastest I ever saw an entire plane loaded was a United 747 in PEK a few years back. Everyone rushed the gate, it was total chaos, and that whole plane was boarded/overheads shut in less than 15 minutes. Maybe more chaos is the answer.

  4. Their process is horrific. If you’re caught up by something and miss your exact boarding position, congrats here’s your non-reclining middle seat next to the lavs and galley. Thanks but no thanks. I’ll stick with carriers in which I can board at my leisure, whenever i want (within the boarding window), and still get to the good seat I’ve pre-selected. The self-loading cattles can keep their airline.

  5. My companion and I have both received A numbers literally dozens of times checking in at 24 hours. The person that claimed this would never happen is just very wrong.

  6. Most of your comments are spot on. I avoided Southwest like the plague due to some bad experiences in the early days of the cattle boarding when I tried ’em out. Finally started flying them when we got the Companion Pass last year. Find the SW passengers are generally a lot nicer than legacy airline with their DYKWIAM passengers (and yes I have status so I see it first hand). The FA’s on SW are also nicer for the most part and seem to enjoy their job, although like anywhere, you have people who hate their jobs no matter what.

    I will generally pay the early check in fee when flights are over 2 hrs. Checking in 24 hours in advance without the fee usually gets me in the last half of the A (30-60), occasionally in the B groups. That always gives me plenty of time to place my carry ons. I am convinced that people have less to carry on because of the free checked baggage policy, so that boarding smoother as there are fewer angry and frantic people looking for overhead space.

    I also note that very few people recline their seats, so SW passengers seems to be a much more civilized group of people who are less self centered and more socially oriented.

    No one could have predicted that I went from hating the thought of flying SW to an advocate. I will also note that their customer service reps have been great when I’ve called.

  7. I think Southwest has a great boarding process (caveat it gets abused by pre-boarders) but the no assigned seats is a major negative. If they kept their boarding process and assigned seats it would be great. Then they could also start blocking middle seats in the front to create a european style business class.

  8. It really depends on how many connecting passengers there and how many A listers are present are as to whether early bird check in guarantees you an A seat or not. It just saves the hassle of checking in 24 hours early. On the other hand, even with a B1-30 boarding group I’ve been able to find window seats in the back of the plane. The only time I get middle seats is if I totally forget about the flight until the day of departure, and get bumped to a C or B30 and up.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who refuses to take Southwest because he shares the name with someone on the terrorist watch list and, despite a redress number, gets Secondary Screening quite frequently, thus always getting C’s because he can’t check in. In that instance, then Southwest is not for him.

  9. Open seating is the absolute worst. I flew Southwest about a year ago and paid for Early Bird. However, my first flight (of two) was delayed. I should have had Early Bird on my second flight (you know, since I PAID FOR IT) but they boarded without us due to the delay and I ended up separated from my party, sitting between two people who tried to hide the middle seat between them when I walked by the first time. I vowed never to fly Southwest again, and I’ve been much happier since. I’ll reconsider if they ever move to assigned seating.

  10. Checking in at 24 hours gets you A for the most part. The person saying you will never get an A number must be flying different routes than the ones I’m flying. Frequent SW flyer who never pays for early bird here.

  11. I have seen the SW process go well and I have seen it go badly. The worst was at Washington Reagan, where first it is an absolute zoo in the terminal and then many people “didn’t understand the process” despite an explanation from both the gate agent and other people in line and just boarded whenever the heck they wanted to and were not turned away.

  12. A few options:

    * Get busy and get ford pregnant.
    * Break your leg. Should be easy with all your travels.
    * serve in the military. They take gays now.

    That should get you priority boarding everytime.

  13. I think Southwest actually has the best and calmest actual boarding process; as you say, you know exactly what order you’re going to board. Obviously, the seating policy (or lack thereof) is the least desirable part of the process, especially for those accustomed to preselecting his or her preferred seat.

    You have to take the good with the bad. I generally like Southwest’s policies as I’m good about checking in at 24 hours.

  14. I don’t mind flying WN — often can get a direct flight on the route I’m flying vs. stopping on a legacy and with reduced mileage earning on basically every carrier, what am I really losing out on? WN has free bags and decent BYOD IFE + wifi on every flight I’ve taken recently. The worst part of flying them is that this is the 1 time every 4 years that a solid 30% of the plane is flying, so many passengers are slow or do things like clog walkways, etc. I try not to blame people who don’t know better, but you have to go in with the right mindset and ideally not on a trip where speeding through the airport is a necessity.

  15. Still much better than Ryanair & Easyjet used to be before they introduced pay for seats.

    They used to call the gate open and everyone in the terminal would get up and speed walk or run to the gate, because it was first on , first served and sit anywhere. Now that was a cattle run.

    I have never had a problem with the SW boarding process

  16. I’m with you Lucky with the love and hate for Southwest’s boarding process. People call it a “cattle call” or “herding the cattle” but it’s the most orderly boarding process I’ve experienced on a domestic airline.

    I usually fly Delta and board with the Sky priority members and I hate the boarding process. Everyone stands around the boarding gate and it’s impossible to fight your way through. The crowd usually extends to the concourse walking lanes blocking other people who are trying to get to their gates. A good example is at the Atlanta airport haha.

  17. They board in an “illogical” way: Aisles fill fast, front fills fast. Yet they board faster than *any* other airline.

    By far.

    It’s not even a little close.

    Best ground ops period.

    Lousy planes.

    Lousy in-flight product.

    But efficient as heck.

    And great flight attendants/crews.

    Totally usable airline for <2 hour flights.

  18. Before flying Southwest I was against the no seat assignment as well. However as others have mentioned the better service, 737 everytime (no CRJs!), and orderly process works for me. I always get early bird because I am often too busy to check in at 24 hours, and usually get around A-30. That gives me my choice of any seat beyond about the first five rows on the entire plane. The interesting thing is that the middle seats like 2B, that are “elite” on other airlines go the last ones on the plane!

  19. Don’t forget the scowls you receive boarding later in the process from the window and aisle people hoping you won’t choose their row’s center seat.

  20. Yeah, I fly SW 4-6 times a year and my experience is that checking in exactly 24 hours ahead is hit or miss — I’ve certainly gotten A a few times, but I typically get low B (low being good, in this case). As for passengers reserving seats or heading towards the back and then having to move up front — that’s never been my experience; it’s typically an orderly and calm process on my flights.

  21. I like the boarding process. I find that most people are content to find their “group of five” and do not insist on claiming their assigned position within their group, which seems a bit petty to me.

  22. It used to be so much better on SW – you’d check in 24 hours ahead and get an A number, then you arrive early and get in the A line – no numbers needed. The earlier you arrived, the better your spot in line (same for B and C). None of this nonsense of 7 or 8 different levels of status, credit card spend priority, or other elite complications that only delay departures anyway. First come, first served and everyone paid about the same price. Democracy. It’s a good thing that we seem to have forgotten.

  23. These days I always check my luggage (because I can expense it for business) on a major carrier and only carry a small backpack that fits under the seat and still leaves room for my feet. Then I always board dead last. I walk onto the plane and directly to my seat without stopping. Works for me.

  24. I’ve been a A List member for years. While I mostly get an A boarding pass, I’d say about 10% of the time I’ll get a B number. As someone who checks in the family at exactly 24 hours out, I’ll get an A for them about 70% of the time. The other 30% is a low B.

    Not sure it’s correct that A List members automatically get a boarding position behind Business Select. Well yes, they’re behind Business Select, but there could be other Early Bird or non A List pax between Business Select and an A List member. May have to do with connecting passengers, but I usually have a few Kettles between me and the Business Select group.

    One perk of A List is even if you end up with a B, or buy a ticket late and don’t get checked in early, you can board after all the As, and before the family boarding.

  25. Lucky, I think they gain the ability to assign seats with their new reservations software rolling out systemwide (currently on international) in May/June? I imagine that will be the next light handed monetization they attempt.

  26. While there is some disagreement with how United boards, when they have enough space for all 5 groups, it goes very well. Its when you have only two lanes (one for groups 1 and 2, the others for groups 3-4-5) for boarding does it look like chaos since:

    A-Nobody can hear when their group is being called to board
    B-The gate area is usually too small for the massive amount of people standing.

    As for SW, the lack of seat assignments is a deal breaker.

  27. @Isbuffs

    I’ve been A-List or A-List Preferred for the last 3 years and have never had an Early Bird before me unless it was on a standby or rebooked flight (not my original). A-List by default gets checked in before Early Bird in the system. Unless you get the ticket within 24 hours of the flight, in which case the Early Birds would already checked in.

    In any case, I got used to the SWA boarding process and the positives are it is undoubtedly the fastest method. Also, if you’re A, you’re getting a window or aisle for sure. Also, guaranteed mainline jet (no RJs). FAs are also much nicer. Downsides are the obvious lack of guaranteed overhead space and the difficulty with sitting with companions. The biggest issue is people abusing the Pre-board system though to board first.

  28. A-group number is only as useful as actually lining up like cattle EXACTLY at the boarding time. Wanna have a grab bite and enjoy the terminal ? Too bad, middle seat for you, even if you paid for Early Bird. Some of us actually have a life than congregating around the gate with the unwashed masses.

  29. One way to monetize while not changing the fundamental nature of open seating is to upsell the first few rows, and maybe the exit row. Perhaps 20-25 seats tops. Flight attendants would tape a paper seat mat on the seats that sold which shouldn’t take that long – just checking the manifest to identify the seats which did sell early and placing the mat down. Business Select would get to pick a reserved seat, should they choose, and Rapid Rewards members would get a few freebies a year based on usage, similar to drink coupons (which would be attached to the RR account). Any seat which didn’t sell would not have a mat placed and would be open to all. Those individuals who bought reserved seats would be first to board, but unlike the current A list/BS boarding their seat would also stay reserved even if they arrived at the gate after boarding began. The issue would be continuing flights, as people who stay on tend to move to the seats in the front on their second leg, but could be managed.

  30. Getting an A boarding position by checking in 24 hours in advance really depends on the route. Maybe someone has already said this above, but the interesting thing is connecting flights. People who live in Baltimore probably never get A by checking in 24hrs in advance. Imagine you’re originating in Boston at 9am on Tuesday and then connecting from BWI on a 12pm flight to DAL. Living in Boston, you get to check in for both fights on Monday at 9am. The folks who live in Baltimore can’t check in for BWI-DAL until 12pm Monday. As so many fights feed into BWI, I have to imagine that it’s impossible to get an A if you originate at BWI unless you pay for early bird.

    Like others above, I almost always pay for early bird these days and often get a number in the B1-B20 range. I have checked in 24hrs on the dot and gotten an A, but that’s far from guaranteed and totally depends on point of origin.

    I’ve also paid the $40 at the airport for Business Select boarding. The Ritz card reimburses it.

  31. I flew a full flight from DC to Chicago last week and checked in on my phone exactly 24 hours before and got A40.

  32. I agree with everything you wrote Ben. Southwest does a perfectly adequate job on direct flights. The problem comes in when you have connecting flights on southwest. If I purchased a business select fare and, through no fault of my own, my inbound connecting flight gets in late, I could very well be the last person to board the plane. That seems completely unfair to me. SW should at least have a mechanism where if you purchase biz select you should have a guaranteed window or aisle seat.

  33. Done it 50x LOG In 24.05 Hrs BEFORE or get Earlybird Checkin 36 hrs before or PAY $30 to $40 @ Gate for A1 to A15…ALWAYS had a great seat B too works for me NOT C .
    No one sets in the BACK OF THE BUS BUT ME !!!!

  34. I used to fly SW a lot but and the boarding process is good, better than AA for sure but not as good as United at this point. The thing I hate about SW is mostly the passengers. I hate to say it but many are experienced SW flyers and they are totally convinced that SW is the best, cheapest most awesome way to fly and would not fly any other airline, period. I don’t mean this bad but they come across weird to me. Also many of them try to game the system like have one person board in A and try to save seats for the companion that is too cheap and is in C.
    I do agree that checking in right at 24 hours will result in A positions many times. I would assume this depends on the airport as some would be very A-list heavy. I really enjoy the airports like John Wayne (I think or is it Burbank) where they board from front and back. It’s fun watching the B group run to rear stairs. It’s like Festival Seating at a concert in the 1970s.
    The other thing I don’t like about SW is the 3 across seats with no option to upgrade seats to more legroom, etc. To me I might as well fly Spirit and buy a bigger seat. I’m just glad my company doesn’t make me fly them more.

  35. I think the A priority should go to those who arrive at the gate first and not who checked in online and then show up 15 minutes before the flight. Surely the incentive is to be early so the flight isn’t delayed.

    I rarely check in on-line. To me, checking in means I am at the airport and ready to fly

  36. When I recently started flying Southwest I was taught: A=Anywhere, B=Back, and C=Center. Pretty true.

  37. One thing I will say about SW. They get you on that plane fast and you’re on your way (notice you’re and your in the same sentence and grammatically correct – my pet peeve about people texting today – they’ve forgotten your and you’re are different as well as there, their and they’re).

    SW doesn’t sit around, get on, get your bags on, let’s go. On American I find people just take FOREVER to get the kitchen sink in the overhead bin. On SW it goes very smoothly. Oh, and I usually check one bag and it takes like 10 minutes to wait for it, if even that. Unlike American where you pay for it and wait for nearly 45-60 minutes if you’re lucky.

    Also, I don’t mind a person saving a seat or two for their friends. Not two rows, that’s just being rude.

  38. And guess what big bad Delta has just put up in the big ATL. Yep! those division poles with ropes no less, you line up behind. Didn’t know where that came from as I’ve never flown SW. Can’t say how it worked, as I flew first that day. Interesting that they copied SW.

  39. Flew them this weekend RT from NY to Austin on totally full flights. Both times got A <40 for me and my companion by checking in EXACTLY 24 hours. Boarding process from very civil and not chaotic at all. I sat in the middle back to NY and my seatmate on the aisle was friendly and encouraged me to "take" the armrest if I wanted. What I did not like was no tray tables in the bulkhead though…flight attendants were friendly during our short (approx 30 minute) delay and gave us free booze once we were airborn.

  40. I fly SW a lot and have completely adjusted to their boarding that I find myself very baffled at the more traditional way it is done. Not having a seat makes things go SO much faster in the end (talking about just economy here) since there isn’t the whole ‘you’re in MY seat’ like seat 24A is SO superior to 25A. Unless it’s the first, exit, or last row it really doesn’t matter. So on SW you get on, sit down, shut up, and fly. It could never be so efficient with assignments. Yes, people try to save seats but the flight attendants are very good at shutting that $hit down asap. They know they have a tight turnaround, they pride themselves on it. They make sure they have someone at the back and they announce if there are no more seats (same with overhead space). Also overhead space isn’t too badly fought over since they do not charge for checking a bag so people still do that a lot. I buy the Priority boarding because I don’t know if I’ll be around at the 24 hour mark. I’ve rarely ever been in B and if I was it was a very low (good) number. And so few people are in the reserved 1-15 that a low B is the equivalent of a high A. Seating is funny only because we’re all playing the ‘don’t make eye contact with those ‘C’ people so you can have that middle seat open. We all do it and the FAs always make it clear when it is full so stop trying to play your games. It cracks me up but still do it anyway. I like the Jet Blue process next. After that I hate hate hate boarding when it’s in economy.

  41. @Martin that is how SW used to board and it was a nightmare, it was first come first serve and people camped out at the gate for hours and hours to avoid being in the C (middle seat). I took flights that were way less convenient to avoid that because I’d never do that. They had to go to this and it works lovely.

  42. Sounds like the flight to Cuba was special. Normally in the instances you described don’t really happen.

    Southwest’s boarding process apparently is the quickest apparently since they did a study showing that random boarding gets people on planes the fastest. And people are pretty good at obeying the boarding groups at the gates.

    T-24 checkin never guarantees an A group anymore these days, everyone knows that trick and even sometimes when i’ve bought earlybird checkin i’ve ended up in a B group.

  43. Not a SW flyer due to the lack of assigned & extended legroom seats, BUT the boarding process makes a ton of sense, as does not charging for checked luggage, which means people will bring less crap with them in the cabin, which means faster turnarounds. No gate lice, not a bad deal.

    If the airline pencil pushers would just think for a moment, they might realize how much delays due to baggage fees are really costing them.

    I agree that the legacy carriers’ boarding process has far too many steps to it. I like JetBlue’s approach, which is generally 1) Status, upgraded seats, families. 2) Everybody else.

  44. There has actually been quite a bit of scientific research done on the fastest way to board an airplane, and Southwest’s free-for-all method is one of the fastest. An astrophysicist at Northwestern University, Jason Steffen, modeled the fastest way known so far that combines the best of outside-in, back-to-front, and random, but it would split up families (and other parties sitting next to each other), so it’s not actually practical. In reality, Southwest’s free-for-all method onboard is actually the fastest way to do it according to a few studies. The aversion of a middle seat keeps people from clogging up the aisle during the initial boarding process. Vox did a great video about it if you want an overview of the research.

  45. Nothing pisses me off more than being on a paid first class ticket on AA and have to push past all the Group 2, 3, 4, etc fleas crowding the gate. Doesn’t happen on Southwest. You have your letter and number. Get in line and get on board.


  47. Okay just read the other comments scientific experiments I’m a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines.I know, we all know how to expedite boarding and deplaning an airplane. Please with all you people that say “oh I fly hundreds of hours a year I know how to do it” will they get your wings work on the plane and then tell the airline industry how to make it work better……..

  48. I’ve actually come to prefer open seating. That allows us to have some control over who we sit with. Either we grab two seats next to some one who looks like a good flight companion, or, if we take an empty row, we’ll initially sit in the window and aisle seats, then offer to move to window/middle when we see someone we like walking down the aisle. (Maybe not PC, but the most important factor is finding someone small enough to fit in their own seat.)

    And, after flying WN several times, I was really surprised how long the boarding process took on a UA flight.

    I’m really very satisfied with WN. When we’ve had the occasional problem, we can talk with a live person in Customer Relations who is able to resolve the issue efficiently. Try that with the legacies!!

  49. Hey Lucky, don’t know if you read these comments, but the link to the Southwest A-List Members page is dead…

  50. The other airlines are trending toward initially assigning middle seats and then charging an upgrade for aisle or window, This is in any section. This makes SWA even more appealing. Middle seats are a pain on flights over an hour but the people that complain the loudest are the people that want first class for a 40 minute flight on other carriers.
    I prefer SWA for the free luggage. Not just mine but for all the other folks that aren’t trying to carry on two weeks worth of luggage.

  51. I flew DCA to home and back NS for Christmas – got EBCI and had A33 both flights… and both flights I was able to snag my favorite seat on the 737-700, the exit-row seat with no seat in front of it. As much as I love the possibility of flying first, when I’m on WN I don’t miss the ridiculous Survivor-style upgrade games and the seemingly endless Economy Elite, Comfort One, Premium Bonus, Extra Ultra, Basic Plus BS seating levels that the Big 3 have implemented.

  52. Southwest is a mess. Too many people doing exactly what UAPhil described. It too difficult to fly as a couple or a family. I would rather just pay for the seat I want and avoid all the idiots.

  53. Flying out of DAL, EB gets you an A group 95% of the time. Checking in exactly 24 hours before is about 50/50 between an A and a low B. YMMV depending on where you’re based, and whether a particular flight handles a lot of connections. Usually, any “B” lower than 15, and you can still snag an aisle or window, though you might have to sit towards the back. Anything above B-30, and you run a high risk of having your carry-on confiscated because the bins fill up.

    As other commenters have mentioned, the boarding process itself is almost always orderly. The gate lice problem is WAY less at WN than at other carriers. While I don’t mind the unassigned seating (all I really care about is a window), I do think WN is leaving money on the table by not having some kind of guaranteed seating/extra legroom option. Something like what calwatch suggests.

  54. I don’t fly SW, but may give it a try now that they’ll fly non-stop EWR to SAN starting June 4th.
    I’d rather have an assigned seat though. The seat saving thing seems childish and I hope the FAs are on top of that. Why don’t they have an official “no saving seats” policy seeing that no seats are assigned? I might help facilitate turn around times even more.

  55. The best boarding experience I’ve had was on Calafia in Cabo. Everyone lined up according to their seat. Back of the plane seats at the front of the line. We all boarded and were seated within 10 minutes, amazingly efficient and extremely logical.

  56. I like SW because the product is the same as Untied when I often travel to Mexico, but it is cheaper. If I have to change the date then I can….NO FEE. Great ! $200 to change dates is crazy ! I pay $ 450 a year for my United Club card for 2 free bags , but SW gives me 2 bags free anyway ! and I need that. The employees seem happy and like their jobs, Everyone was very helpful …even when my 3 wheeled cart of 4 bags fell over. I really love them . AND their credit card gave me 50,000 points. I just love SW.

  57. I agree with Henry and Jon regarding SWA.

    I can state from detailed fact based experience SWA has the worst IT department and systems management organizations. I am sure if you have flown them more than 4 times you have witnessed a “glitch” in the process.

    A weeks ago I checked in both my husband and myself; me first. I was A34 and 10 minutes later he was A20. Both A Listers. Then last week, I checked in at the exact time. No longer an A lister and I was B34. WTF. I was so pissed. I called SWA and asked how the heck this could happen. There was no way that 83 people including Biz Select could have been in front of me. They shared that the boarding priority is based on many component. One new data point to me was “when you bought the ticket”. This along with the timing of check in and status make up the algorithm of your boarding position. So, if you bought your ticket a month ago for a lower rate and you are an A lister and check in on time your given a better position than an A lister, checking in at the same time and who just bought the ticket two days for twice the price.

    When I was in line I asked the young gal in front of me when she checked in and if she had status. She did not have status and checked in 45 min after I checked-in. Yet, she was ahead of me. This started a conversation in the line and it turns out there were even A grouping people with the same status that checked in after me.

    My opinion; SWA was worth flying when their rates where really cheap. But, now their rates are the same as the major carriers. If I have to pay Biz Select fares to get a decent seat (still the worst leg room of any airline) and have to connect 9/10 times then I would rather fly Delta and know my seat, not have to be bothered with day before check-in (or pay extra) and plenty of overhead space.

    If SWA boarding position was JUST based on time of check-in then that is one thing but they have now complicated it beyond belief.

  58. I like the crew, the free bags, the ability to change flight. Sooo close to being the perfect airline. Yet their boarding process from the 70s suck. It is a huge annoyance to have to set my alarm to make sure I check in at precisley 24 hours (along with everyone else) for the privilege to stand by the letter A. SW have no issue inconveniencing their customers, to make their own processes easier for thrmselves. The fact you can pay for priority standing to board show they are no different then any airline that allows you to pay for better seats. Except other airlines have the decency to assign a specific seat for your $$. Southwest is fine if you’re a hick and don’t expect more for yourself. Fine if you’re a single traveler with no life who is excited to check in exactly twenty-four hours beforehand and only need to seat yourself. For the rest of us, I would pick Delta over SW any day of the week!!

  59. Used the early bird check in for a flight from BWI to LAX and received B17. Not that great. That’s 77 people plus all the pre-boarders getting seats ahead of me.

  60. You just now figured out Southwest has the best boarding process? This has been clear for years. The other airline processes are ridiculous and always end up in mad rushes for the gates by some, numerous folks that have no clue what their zone is trying to board early, unintelligibly garbled announcements from the gate attendants, and non-English speakers with no hope of following the boarding maze. Southwest process is simple and clear – find your place in line, no excuses, no problems.

    Also, you exaggerate the problem of reserving seats. Yes, it is an issue. Southwest should make clear couples can save a middle seat for their partner – but cannot try to block a middle and window for just one person. Yes, it is nice to have the extra room, but that doesn’t fly and usually flights are full anyway. As for anyone trying to reserve more than 1 seat, they should be sent to the back if they want to do that – their choice, sit together in the back or take an individual seat up front. But having flown hundreds of Southwest flights I have rarely seen this to be a problem – I just lose respect for people when I go to sit in the middle and all the sudden the 2 people in the window and aisle want to sit together.

  61. Just flew from Houston to Belize on SW. Had A-3,4. Only because we paid for Business Class. What a joke. There were 17 people in pre-board and they went first! This was March 11, 2017. One lady had a cane and her whole family went with her. One family had a five year old and they all got on the plane. Never pay for Business Class! Our friends did the 24 hour check in and got B-45,46. I hate it.

  62. On a recent return trip from LV, we were holding A31,A32 and were first in line at A31-60. Another passenger was immediately next to me and sort of trying to get past me? I didn’t move. He was right beside me, thinking I would move and I noticed his boarding card #, B60. When A1-15 were called , he stepped ahead and was approximately the 5-6th person to board. He simply put his card down in a stack for the gate agent and then proceeded quickly down the jet way. The agent scanned the card and said/did nothing. There should be a simple check in the software that would “decline” a “B” or “C” group boarding card if presented while “A” group is boarding. This asshole should have been the 100-120th person to board and bullied his way to 5-6th. Unacceptable.

  63. I like the “line up” idea, but not the open seating. I have a issue with the assigned numbers however. On a Multi leg flights I can get an A ticket on the first leg, but never on the second. You are competing against the other flights that also feed into this connecting flight.

    I will avoid SW from now on.

  64. I’ll never fly SWA again. I bought a priority boarding pass for A1-15 and some woman reserved 2 rows of exit seating. The flight attendant did NOTHING to help. Never again.

  65. Rob
    Tell them to ” Muck Off ” one or 2 more seats ?? but not 2 rows.
    Been there I’m old with the seat thing .

  66. Caveman, I was SO taken aback by her act of reserving 2 exit rows that I was completely caught off guard.

  67. Rob
    Next time U be ready 4 ANY BS correct ??? I go out of my way to help people BUT no one special including ME .

    Nice Guy.

    Paris next week..

    CHEERs Mate

  68. Give my choice I’ll fly any other airline. I hate the cattle herding. My wife and I never end up together and more often not I’m stuck in a middle seat. So I do pay more an fly other airlines. Just say no to cattle herding.

  69. My early bird check in experience was great when my mother and i flew out to Jamaica last summer for a week! We were in the first group of A’s and had great seating! However on the return flight we were in the last group of c’s and had to sit separate! I hated that..and i really wish they would do assigned seating like airtran did!

  70. Southwest Airlines has completely cheapened the experience of air travel.

    I’ve flown Southwest extensively through the years going back to the days when they handed out plastic boarding cards to determine passenger order to get on their planes. It’s always been a cattle call and still is with the current system. Who want’s to stress out about checking in exactly 24 hrs in advance or making sure to maintain A List status by business loyalty. Gate areas are always jam-packed, and rare is the flight that isn’t completely full (as the flight attendants joyfully exclaim during the pre-flight announcements). SWA is squeezin’ em on!!

    Well, good for them, profit is paramount, but flying SWA is like being on a city bus at 35000 feet in an aluminum tube full of sardines. I don’t care how cheerful and entertaining their gate agents and flight attendants seem to be – that’s a huge head-fake anyway.

    There’s no compensation for being herded like farm animals. I’ll come back when SWA gives me the opportunity to select my seat ahead of time…and requires that passengers wear shoes!!

  71. I fly sw a lot and I like their seating policy. But sometimes I see passengers who have no interest in how it works nor they want to follow. A couple of times, when I asked someone what number his/her number was, to determine exactly where I should be lining up, they gave an answer like “I am B30, but I don’t think it matters” and didn’t seem interetsed in lining up where they were supposed to be standing. Well, it MATTERS!

  72. Hi Ben,

    I thought i could seek your help for this.
    Would you know the BIN range ( first 6 digits of CC ) for South West Rapid Rewards Credit Card please? Usually this info is public on BIN tables etc, i could find for United and American Airlines but cant really find for South West.

    Any help please?


  73. I’m just lol’ing at the comments from people like Henry LAX. He’s either never flown SW, or did it very wrong, as there is no “cattle call.” Like the author said, once your boarding group (A-B-C) is called you just walk up to the area where your number is, and people line up accordingly. Each group’s boarding begins within 5 minutes of being asked to line up.

    For year’s I’ve been flying 2-4 trips/month and now exclusively use SW. Because of that I have A-List status so even if I forget to check in, I still get to board with the A group (just after A1-A60 have boarded). Before I earned A-List I always paid the $15 to upgrade to early check-in which results in a good A number. Never once paid that fee and got a B group.

    Delta, American, etc are the cattle calls. Those carriers do “zone” boarding and the zones always start filling up with people standing (or sitting) in line for 30 min+ before any flight. Don’t believe me? Wak around any airport and look at Delta flights that don’t board for half an hour and compare with SW. Delta will have lots of people squatted at the front of the line. SW passengers will be sitting in chairs reading while they wait for their boarding group.

    And don’t even start on other customer service. Legacy carriers charge $200 per segment to change, and generally charge much higher per segment prices for one-way trips than round trip. SW doesn’t play any of those games which make me a much more loyal customer. Treat me well & I’ll use you again. Treat me like a number or a profit center and I’ll never use you again.

  74. @Lucky – Most people who fly Southwest are families going on vacation therefore they try and check in early and get a good boarding spot. One time I went on family boarding (between A and B) on Southwest and all the window seats were taken already. Though I’m sorry I disagree that they should change it because I have preboard on all flights (regardless of airlines) 🙂

    Though I do understand for other people.

  75. I’ve flown SWA for years because they reward points for spend, and you get free tickets faster. 6-10-12 pts per dollar for a 30k pt ticket ($2.5-5k spend), short last minute business flights can still net you a lot of pts vs air miles. I do not like the cattle car boarding system, but if you think about it, it’s an ingenious game that encourages passengers to board quickly. Folks that must line up exactly in their boarding number and want to interrogate all other passengers are annoying, and I typically ignore them. With an assigned seat on other airlines, I would get on last not needing overhead space, and knowing my seat would be waiting.

    Lately every SWA flight is full, which is starting to get old. It becomes a tragedy watching the C group search for overhead space, despite checked luggage being free?! My only negative experience was changing wanna get away flights due to a sick child, and being told the next available wanna get away seats would be in 9 days. Had to purchase five full fair seats $1700 just for the return flight. Admittedly other airlines would have done the same or worse. The pitfall of flying out of small airports near family. Major airports are not usually an issue.

    SWA just announced upcoming flights to Hawaii next year. There’s an incentive.

  76. Everytime the plane is not full – inevitably a passenger says being in order “does not matter.” That is an opinion. I like row seats near the front. Plus I think it is easier to just follow directions. I hate this thing about SW – people who take it upon themselves to say the order is not important.

  77. What different does it make where you sit. Just be thankful you’re on the plane. Reading many of these comments makes me want to puke — people thinking they are so much better than others, and that they deserve this seat or that seat. This is what’s wrong with American today. It’s not racism — it’s “classism” I’m first class and well, you’re not – so get to the back of the plane! Rest assured that when I fly alone, and the flight’s not full, and there is a middle seat in the front of the plane between two of you snobs, that’s exactly where I’m going to sit!

  78. Holy cow Rusty what the heck are you talking about? Get WAYYYY down from your soapbox pal. This is Southwest. There’s literally one class of seating.

  79. The problem I have is that the people that rush to get a window seat, usually go to sleep and close the blind. They can do that in the middle or aisle, save the window for those of us that actually look out of it. Plus being a larger person (not obese) the window is more comfy for me and others next to me.

  80. I love Southwest, but have had problems with rude flyers refusing to to move their gear of of the center seat on full flight! It’s pretty awkward and makes for a long flight when one has to get a flight attendant to have people move their stuff!

  81. I’ve been a Southwest flier for several years. At first, they really didn’t seem to control the boarding process but after a while, they became stricter and passengers were more orderly as well. After all, why comply with a rule NO ONE ELSE IS FOLLOWING? Once newbies see the orderly way the rest of us board, they tend to wait their turn. I usually get an A or early B, depending on the time of year (holidays) using regular check-in. I only fly domestically.
    Recently, (May 2018) I tried United for the first time in many years. Now that was chaos. What the heck did all those categories mean when people didn’t line up but rushed the check-in. The entry screeners ignored those who lined up with a glassy-eyed non-look at the ‘fools’ who followed directions.

  82. The reason why Southwest boards faster is because of its luggage policy, it has nothing to do with the boarding line. I’d say that if Southwest had the same luggage policy as the legacies, boarding would take even longer; high-B and C PAX would be doubling back towards the front after a vain search for a window or aisle.

    I set an alarm but got stuck in a subway tunnel without a data connection at check-in time. B 44. Regretting not paying for EB, as I need to be as close to the bathroom as possible.

    Last year I had a couple cut in front of me out of order (B50’s to B10’s.) I told the agent, she just smiled and said nothing. Called customer service the next day, they said they may have upgraded to A-list boarding. ok, then why did their boarding passes say B, and why didn’t they board with the A line?

    After that I decided once I use my credit card points I’ll be done with Southwest. Their fares are right up there with the legacies now, yet they still don’t fly to JFK, and they have very few nonstop routes from NYC. They let people board out of order, and there are ways of getting a free checked bag with the legacies.

  83. Yes u are Correct with the price and the Line stuff . One HC lets let 10 people in so what !!! I pay for EB but lets Clean Up the Special People BS and Dogs . I always sit in the ” Back of the Bus ” but Law & order SW !!! EasyJet does that mostly been on 10x….


  84. I actually just checked in this afternoon at 2:30pm on the dot for my 2:30pm flight tomorrow and ended up in B12! I’m a travel agent and fly SW quite a bit. I’m not sure if it’s where I’m flying from and/or too but checking in 24 hours prior generally lands me in B group. Or way in the 60’s in A.

    I usually spend the extra on Early Bird but since I’m already spending too much on this vacation I figure the two of us will be fine this go around….

  85. SW boarding policy and the airline in general is not worth the potential savings. Open seating is archaic and completely unnecessary in this day and age. I don’t often get to choose the airline I get to fly, but when it turns out to be SW, i’m dreading the process. A flight attendant actually said over the intercom today, “C boarding means Center single seat, and that’s why you should have spent the $40 on early-bird”!!! The airline set up this policy in order to force customers to shell out the extra cash to maybe get a good boarding position. I checked in exactly 24 hours before my flight out, and got B55-56. I paid, begrudgingly, $50 (2x$25) for early bird on my return flight and received B21-22. Better, but not worth the $50 imo. I will forever try to avoid flying Southwest.

  86. Get the SW Premier card $149 u get 4 A1-15 slots ..I’ll just keep running up the points for Hawaii.

  87. I check people in 24 hours ahead of their departure all the time at work. 99% of the time they get an “A” boarding. These aren’t people who travel a lot to get A listed, either.

  88. I love Southwest’s boarding process because it seems to force something lost in society…a sense-of-urgency. When I board a United or American flight, people tend to “mosy” down the aisle, taking their time getting to their row, then unpack their bag full of crap before putting their stuff away. Even when I have a first class ticket I still move-with-a-purpose, and I expect everyone to do the same. If you are unwilling to do that, then get in a car and drive.

    The only thing I dislike about the SWA boarding process is the “pre-boarders”. I just got off a plane that had 18 pre-board wheelchair assisted individuals getting on, taking up almost 20 minutes just to get them on the plane. However, when we got off, only 5 people needed wheelchairs. That kind of stuff is aggravating. I think there should be a max quota for the number of preboard tickets allowed to be sold.

    Hate to be the one to actually say it (although I think most of you have thought it), but the problem is with lazy people who have no sense of how much they are holding up the rest of the world with their slow, benign, simply lazy being. Time to step it up, move with a purpose, and reserve flying for those of us who actually want to get something done.

  89. I just checked in exactly 24 hours prior (with super-fast fingers while watching the clock the entire time) – and got C17!! What the heck?! Oh, the humanity!!

  90. Yes I did TOOOOOOOOO ..Get the SW $149 card and get A1-15 as in FOUR times a year and save ur kin seats ..

  91. I love SW for the most part. My issue is with all those, so called, handicapped people who walk around the airport then hop in a wheel chair when it comes time to board so they can get on first. Then miraculously they are cured by the time they get off the plane and walk off like nothing is wrong. Maybe they should board last. Would cure that problem…….

  92. No they would only get a middle seat next to me .i love the Crowd that gets to go with them ..

  93. Southwest’s “cattle call” boarding system is terrible. I was on a ski trip, and I was unable to check in at the 24 hour mark because I was on the slopes. So I ended out with a C boarding position. I ended out having to sit in the middle of two larger people, and one of them made it even more uncomfortable by bribing me to go away. I declined the bribe, and we all had a terrible flight. Except for the boarding system, Southwest is better than the other options, but this boarding system ruins it for them.

  94. I love the boarding system of Southwest Airlines. It enables the boarding to take place much more quickly.
    If you want to be assured of a better seat it is worthwhile to purchase the ‘early check in choice. With early check in you are usually able to get in the A boarding group.
    I’ve only flown with them a couple times but am impressed with the boarding system. We have a son who works in the airline industry and he said they have the most efficient boarding process as well as deplaning.
    They have a more casual atmosphere on their planes compared to other airlines.

  95. There is a reason why I try and avoid Southwest at all costs. I checked in only two hours after what would be the 24 window. I ended up getting B52, which according to the article, would be at the end of the first 2/3 of the plane. This sucks with people reserving seats. I would have to not slept in late on a Sunday in order to get a better seat on the 7:15am Monday flight. Give me assigned seats please. Oh and this does not include the boarders who don’t think a B52 matters. Maybe I’ll reverse it and say oh thought it was B25!

  96. Jeff
    Get the SW $149 super card all fixed or set ur alarm !!! I check-in while flying then get the BP on the way to my Uber ..Get with it this old man did.

  97. One BIG problem with boarding and it happens on EVERY flight. The saving of seats by cheap jerks. If it is against SW policy then why is it done on every single flight and obvious to passengers but not to the flight attendants who work there? This is done for one reason. To avoid paying an A list fee (which is actually ripping off the airline and people who do pay for it) and being able to sit with their buddy or family member who paid for one so its a board all at the price of one A list fee of deal. So if more then one person flies together (which is quite a few) then one person pays and boards and waits for his entire family to board last and saves them a great spot and $30 a person. Every family of 4 does this. Yes EVERY one. thats 4 people board A list for 30 bucks. These people think they are so clever but everyone knows they are cheap and hates it but the flight attendants ignore it 100% of the time. My solution, If your caught doing it, you move to the back of the line with no refund of your A list fee. Post it and enforce it and it will free up the seats so B listers and even some C will get a decent seat. Or keep the current policy and watch people get ticked off as they board. Did I say EVERY flight?

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