In the last month, I have had occasion to fly Southwest eight times, unusual because I have always disliked WN and do everything in my power to avoid it. My distaste, I recently realized, has been based primarily on open seating. Everyone has their airline hot button, the factor that provokes a guttural reaction, and for me, it’s seat selection.
This comes after too many years of transcon flights when my kids were babies and toddlers, a time when seating security–knowing exactly where we were sitting and the configuration–reduced onboard stress. (For years my husband and I sat 2/2 behind each other so that our then-toddler could kick the seat of his older brother sitting in front of him, instead of some kind but easily irritated stranger.)
Southwest, despite pressure from loyal fans/customers to switch to assigned seating, has repeatedly recommitted to its open seating policy based on cost/efficiency savings. (Remember, WN is a low-cost, not low-fare, airline.) But what they have done very smartly is to evolve the process so that open seating has become painless. Remember the days when you received a plastic boarding pass at the gate, which determined when you could board and scramble for a seat? Fast forward to a seamless and well-organized A, B and C-group assignment given at online checkin, with options for Early Bird Check-In for a fee and A-group assignments for A-List (elite) Rapid Rewards members and certain business fares. Once you have your group letter and number, clear and simple signage and announcements get everyone lined up in a fast and efficient way. Passengers know the process (it’s easy even for first-timers) and the mood at the gate is relaxed and “luv-ly.”
Legacy carriers, meanwhile, have commoditized seat selection. Getting an aisle or window seat without paying an ancillary fee has become an art. And messy boarding processes have heightened the stressful fight for overhead bin space. Airlines have experimented with myriad boarding procedures, leaving passengers confused about how boarding will occur (and how your group number is determined) and jockeying for position at the gate. My favorite trick (and it’s appalling that I’ve even devised such a trick) is to begin the boarding process to the side of the gate agent, where I can slip in first for my group without appearing ruthless.
This new chaos at legacy carrier gates, ironically, has put Southwest back in my good graces because it has created a trusted, less stressful boarding environment. On Southwest, I have options for bettering my boarding position so once onboard I can choose a great seat. I know what to expect at the gate. And so do my fellow passengers. I had to laugh recently when I saw United had introduced group boarding lanes at SFO gates, not unlike Southwest’s. The tides have changed, and I now call myself a Southwest fan (as long as I can control my position in the A group).