The Good and Bad of Southwest’s EarlyBird Check-In

I know I’ve been writing a lot about Southwest lately, but they’ve had a lot of news to talk about. The latest is the launch of EarlyBird check-in which allows you to pay to get to the front of the boarding line. The idea is a good one, but the implementation has some real flaws.

I suppose this is a good time to go over just exactly how Southwest boards. I think most people know that Southwest has no assigned seating, so when you get on the airplane, you just grab any seat you want. That’s why boarding order matters so much. Here’s how that works:

Current Southwest Boarding Process

Under the current system, you get a letter and a number that splits into groups of 5, so A45 will board within the group A41-45, etc. I think most of the rest here is self-explanatory except possibly for Rich Uncle Pennybags up there. The A-list is the group of super travelers who fly all the time. They get to board early no matter what. Business Select is the top fare level that Southwest introduced that also allows pre-boarding as well.

Now, this EarlyBird deal will let people pay $10 each way to board after the A-listers/Business Select-folk. Basically, Southwest will run a sweep 36 hours prior to departure and assign each person in that group a number in the order that it was purchased. Then they’ll do another sweep at 25 hour prior to departure to catch anyone who booked during that window. At 24 hours prior to departure it opens up for general boarding. So you’ll get a great seat if you pay up . . . or will you?

There is absolutely no cap on the number of people who buy an EarlyBird seat. So it’s theoretically possible that you could pay for EarlyBird boarding and be stuck in the B group, or, horror of all horrors, in the C group. That’s garbage. Southwest spokesperson Brandy King explained:

Currently, we do not have a cap on the number of Customer who can purchase the product – we didn’t want to make an assignment without knowing what the demand will be. If the number of EarlyBird passengers gets so high that it is not providing a benefit to the Customer (ex. starts to dip into the “C” group), we would make adjustments to the number sold.

Weak. If you don’t want to have people pushed into the C group, then just make it a rule. Then you don’t have to worry about it actually happening. My gut tells me this is another one of Southwest’s dreaded technology issues.

And what does this do to the Business Select people? The biggest benefit by far of paying for that fare is early boarding. Now that has been gutted. Oooh, I still get a free drink. Yippee. If they want to keep Business Select as a viable product, they need to really do something to add value again. I know Business Select still boards ahead of this group, but come on. That’s not going to be enough for me to pay for that full fare.

If they wanted to really do this right, they should tell you what your check-in position will be before you purchase it. They could even charge more for the highest spots if they wanted. At the very least, they could cap the number of seats so they can guarantee value.

I know some people are moaning that this is a fee, and Southwest said they wouldn’t add any fees (now they say no “hidden” fees), but I disagree. To me, this is an example of creating additional value in a way that many people will appreciate. It makes it easier if you don’t have to sit by the computer waiting for that magical 24 hour time to check-in. They should have done this long ago.

BUT, the implementation is kind of sloppy, and that’s my biggest concern. Still, it’s a good idea in theory. Let’s see how it does in practice. If anyone has had any experiences with it, hit the comments.

Publishing Note: Monday is Labor Day, and I’m taking it off. I’ll be back here on Tuesday.

[Bunch of photo credits:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/oddharmonic/ / CC BY-SA 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/majorvols/ / CC BY 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/42dreams/ / CC BY 2.0
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