Southwest Airlines is not big on fees, they include everything – or that’s what they want you to believe. But isn’t a rose by any other name still a seating charge? I think that’s how it goes…
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Other Carriers Nickel and Dime Customers
In the post I wrote last week, Some Southwest Customers Blind to Shortcomings, I should have added “and largely unaware of the benefits of other carriers.” Many wrote in discussing how they fly all the time for business and have to check a bag, like the space they get on the plane and the ability to jump on an earlier flight – despite realizing the irony because all carriers offer those benefits to their elites as well and thusly making my point.
The general sentiment was that Southwest may be more money, but they include things such as, yes, checked luggage that can add cost to other less expensive carriers. They’d rather pay more once and not worry about being held hostage by the carrier and the “cheaper” fare at every turn.
Many cited concerns about being forced into a middle seat in coach, potentially separated from family, as a reason they chose to pay the Southwest premium and avoid the nickel & diming at Delta, United, and American.
Early-bird Checkin and Upgraded Boarding
I mentioned that I don’t hate the airline and was scheduled to fly them this week. When checkin time came 24 hours prior to departure this week, I was alerted on my phone, opened the app and checked in within 20 seconds. Despite checkin perfection, I was assigned B53.
How did that happen? Southwest sells two tiers of better boarding and thus choice seating selections. The classic method is the $15-25/flight segment Early-bird checkin. This method checks guests in 36 hours before departure, a full 12 hours of schmucks like me.
But wait, there’s more. Early-bird checkin doesn’t guarantee an “A” boarding group so Southwest also offers to sell that elite benefit to anyone. “Upgraded boarding” (early-bird checkin is far more creative) is sold for $30, 40, or $50 per flight segment and guarantees an A1-15 boarding slot (which it offers for free to A-List members.)
A Fee By Any Other Name
Southwest doesn’t usually talk about the competition, it’s the customers who do. Looking back on previous Southwest posts makes it clear, the other carriers have a reputation of charging their customers for everything and one of the most hated is paying for any seat that is not a middle seat in the back of coach. If you want to choose your seat to sit together with family, it’ll cost you between $15-30 depending on the carrier and the seat. Quelle horreur!
But Southwest has me boarding 113th. Let’s put this together. On a 737-700 with 143 seats, checking in exactly when I should but not paying for any expedited boarding line cuts I was 30th from last to board and thus, to choose my seat. On a 24 row jet, finding three seats together for my family is possibly impossible. If I were flying on a heavy business route where no one really wanted to sit next to each other, I’d be nearly guaranteed a middle seat simply because I didn’t pay to board early.
How is this any different than charging a fee to select my exact seat on one of the other carriers? Is this not the exact same thing as a seating assignment charge from the others?
While the other carriers charge to positively secure your exact seat, Southwest has built on the same anxiety by in effect selling the ability to select your seat. Both have the same result, if you don’t pay a fee to gain special access above the cost of your ticket, you risk the potential of being stuck in a middle seat, separated from the rest of your party. Just call a fee, a fee.
What do you think? Are these two different? Are there other charges that Southwest has mirrored but somehow masked the same fees of their competitors?
Quick correction, A-list and A-list preferred members do not get A1-15 boarding spots. Our spots begin at A16 as A1-15 is reserved for business select and if not all 15 business select tickets are purchased those remaining get offered for the Upgraded Boarding at the gate program.
Article greatly misrepresents the difficulty of getting a ideal seat on Southwest. First, I am doubtful you were “perfect” in check in and got B53 — on average, if I check in an hour or two late I would get that number. Beyond that, you assume that A1-B52 boarding positions are all filled, which is rarely ever true as that would require all the paid priority slots to be purchased. I have never paid for priority boarding, but have in roughly 50% of my flights gotten the exit row seat with no seat in front of it.
Finally, yes, Southwest Airlines is an airline which does not promise seating assignment for free. This is made quite upfront and clear by their boarding process to begin with, everyone is well aware that they have free-for-all boarding and don’t offer seating assignments. The claim that Southwest has “masked” anything is pretty bizarre as the free-for-all boarding is their most famous attribute, perhaps only after checked bags.
Sorry, I didn’t screenshot my boarding pass and include it with a date and time stamp, you’re going to have to take my word for it. But consider the crazy world I live in was true… would that not make my case that it’s a seating fee by another name?
Depending on what flight you are catching, you may have other people who are connecting on your flight and were able to check in earlier than you because of their first flight. This gives them a letter/number ahead of you.
Pay the extra for a A-list. It still beats the price of paying for luggage on other airlines.
Diane: Thank you for your comment.
I am doubtful of the connecting traffic considering it was a 9:45 AM flight from Pittsburgh to Fort Myers. It’s possible, but in the event that was the case, would it be safe to assume that no more than five passengers had connected on this flight? I can’t imagine ANY would have been routed this way.
And to get back to the checking bags thing, I don’t check bags. I just don’t. If I do, it’s probably on an airline I have status on or my credit card covers it, sometimes for free. It doesn’t offset anything for me in the same way that if you didn’t have a PlayStation but every single flight they gave you free PlayStation games, you’d derive no value from it whatsoever. I’ve not paid a checked bag fee of any kind in perhaps a decade and it’s not down to flying Southwest.
I would say that sounds like bad luck. I fly Southwest regularly and rarely pay for the early boarding. (I only pay if I think I’ll forget to check in.)
I rarely get slotted so far down as to have trouble getting a forward aisle seat and more than half the time I can have my choice of one near the front or an exit row seat. That would never happen without paying at American (where I used to fly).
If you fly regularly and did the same with American, you’d also have free seat selection as a Gold.
I think the definition you have of “fly regularly” is different than most people. I live in Phoenix – a Southwest and American hub, but I fly almost exclusively with Southwest. “Regularly” for me = about one round trip a month, usually around the western US (San Diego, Las Vegas, Bay Area, Seattle, and Spokane being regular destinations).
Even if I flew every month round trip to Spokane, that’s 24 segments, $2880 (at $240 round trip, the average ticket price), and 24.480 miles. That STILL doesn’t qualify for Gold on AA (it’s right under the qualifying limits in all three ways).
Which is fine, because all of us flying Southwest get the seat selection and flexibility benefits (and checked bags, if you use it), *without* having to get elite status at all on Southwest.
Last time I had to fly American, I wasn’t given any seat selection at all either – there were dozens and dozens of empty seats, but not being “elite”, every single one of them had a $40+ charge to select them. There were NO free seats to select. I gambled, and was assigned a middle seat in the back of the plane, something that I haven’t had to deal with on Southwest in years.
Seems to me you got particularly unlucky. I’ve never paid for any sort of early boarding and I’ve always been in the upper-to-mid B range. (Granted, I don’t fly Southwest frequently.). Interested to see if others have the same experience as you.
Comments so far have stated no one has ever gotten below a mid-B. I’ve had C20 before but it wasn’t when I checked in exactly on time (it was fairly late.) What made this so shocking to me was that I checked in before I was even 30 seconds into the 24-hour window.
To answer your question, Kyle, yes, I think that this is a fee for seat selection. The principal difference is that you get to select your actual seat on other carriers. With Southwest, you’re just increasing your odds of getting a “good” seat.
As someone who flies a lot (exactly what that means depends upon whether you’re asking me or my wife ;)), I do not and will never have to pay for seat selection or bags on United. So it’s a little hard for that to persuade me to fly Southwest (it’s their schedule that tips the scales in their favor for me when I do choose them). But if I were a member of the general flying public, I would only buy the “no baggage fees” claim if I could convince myself that Southwest’s fares were at least a baggage fees’ worth less than fares on other carriers.
A balanced examination of advocates is all I really think is important. There’s nothing wrong with flying Southwest, it’s those who don’t realize that their free bags are costing them hundreds or that boarding early for a fee is, in fact, a seat selection fee that I choose to offer a counter opinion to.
Southwest is the only airline that flies nonstop PIT-RSW, and it is irregular service and therefore a heavily traveled leisure flight. You can bet that 80 plus percent of the passengers on your flight checked bags and many probably paid for early bird or business select. Most probably checked two bags and brought a carry on.
Southwest does have some fees, but the difference is that they are up front about it and do not attempt to unbundle things that used to be included in a ticket price. The vast majority of the people that fly that route are not elites with any airline. They are just regular working folks trying to take a vacation and not deal with the hassle of a connecting flight on another airline.
Your points are valid, but who do they apply to? You chose that flight because it is a nonstop and now you seem upset that you may have to sit in a middle seat for a couple hours. As a frequent flyer, you know the deal…passengers who choose not to check bags on SWA are paying for the ones who do…kinda like flying 20 years ago on every airline.
If you didn’t feel you got a good value for your ticket, you should have bought a ticket on another carrier and gotten a refund on your SWA ticket. Oh wait, that’s another thing you can do on Southwest that you can’t do on a legacy carrier.
You’re correct that Southwest’s schedule to RSW is irregular this time of year. Where we differ is that you feel Southwest is upfront about the fees and I feel like they have masked seat selection as boarding.
I didn’t sit in a middle seat, I chose not to fly the route but not down to the seat selection – I canceled as I had booked with points just as I could reschedule for free with American or with status on United, just refund altogether.
I’ve flown WN to Hawaii several times now and checking in exactly 24 hours out usually gets me an early- to mid- C, although I’ve had it give me B50+ a couple times.
Also don’t forget that passengers with small children get to board between A and B, so that is more people (likely with C passes) who still get to board ahead of you.
Very true regarding families who may board ahead of those B boarding pass holders who would otherwise board behind you.
Last week I took a flight from Denver to Philadelphia. A Monday morning at 5:30 am and just like you, I checked in right at the 24 hour period and I received B -34. 🙂
Regarding your point about family boarding, WN does give families time between A and B boarding groups for families to board together, so your family of 3 is virtually guaranteed to sit together without having to pay out of pocket. If you don’t travel enough to earn status then the combined savings for a family of 3 to fly WN is significant. Assuming only 2 checked bags at $25 each way and $15 per seat selection, all conservative estimations, that’s $95 saved each way and $190 per RT. WN’s reputation as a cheaper airline may be over stated these days, but between not paying additional fees and much better customer service it’s easy to see why causal travelers love WN.
And if you never, ever check bags? If my family of three each have a backpack and a rollaboard, there’s no reason to check a bag unless we are staying more than seven days. Even if that were the case, your assumption is that we are each checking two bags. WHY? Who needs to check two bags per person? It’s madness, leave something at home.
We typically don’t check bags ourselves either, but tons of casual travelers do, so I was attempting to find a number as close to the average as possible. This is especially true when you’re talking about folks who do not travel often or have a smaller child and all the stuff needed to handle that. Regardless you’re still saving on paying for seating
One subtle benefit here of flying WN is you don’t have to deal with the folks who over pack but are too cheap to check their bags (rarely enforced by the airlines too)!
I think your right on in your analysis. Yes flying Southwest means you can avoid certain fees. But that isn’t to say they are even remotely the cheapest carrier even when you account for all of those fees.
Merely holding most airlines credit cards will get you free baggage. Not to mention that you then get priority boarding as well. So it’s false to just assume that your saving X by flying Southwest because that’s not always true.
There is an additional factor. Yes Southwest will board families with small kids early. But what is the cutoff for that age wise? Would you want your 6 or 7 year old stuck in a middle between strangers several rows away from you for example?
Finally I would argue that flying Southwest creates a more stressful experience than what a “normal” airline does. You either pay for early boarding or you have to be locked and loaded to check in right on time. Compare that to a legacy style airline where it doesn’t really matter. Also you walk on the plane and especially if your later now your semi frantically trying to figure out where to sit. Vs having assigned seating where you just go to your assigned seat and occupy it.
Southwest has a large presence at our home airport and between my wife and I we fly dozens of flights per year. Sometimes we check in on time, sometimes an hour late. We have literally never come close to not having seats together, and usually in the forward half of the plane without status. Its odd but some folks ahead of you seem to prefer walking all the way to the back.
The only way I can see needing to pay for upgraded boarding would be if you went hours without checking in and you were concerned about overhead space on a popular route.
I’d rather play musical chairs than give $15 more to SWA (on their already high fares, — read people who don’t have bags are paying for them anyway as bag fees are built into their prices). Still baffled after all these years why people actually think they are getting such a bargain on an airline who touts itself as “low cost”. I just priced a fare on F9, UA, and DL to Denver. All offered fares minus any bag charges. SWA on the other hand was at least $30 higher for the same routing with the offer of “bags free”. If your fare is $30 higher that apparently you’re charging for bags whether anyone wants to check one or not. Deceptive, yet millions of people just don’t see that.
No, Kyle, there is a major difference between this system and everywhere else: you actually don’t know which of the middle seat you get cramped into. I mean, it’s not probably first world problem, but not knowing your seat is definitively worse than knowing where it is exactly and how much it will suck.
Oh, and I am sorry, but since when do we have to drop all we do to check in and not count it as a cost of time? On the other system, yes, you are middle seat in back rows, but you are there there. No worry about check in time
20 seconds after check in is amateur hours 🙂 that being said, B53 should still mean an aisle or window seat… just maybe in the back