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:

Southwest's 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: / CC BY-SA 2.0 / CC BY 2.0 / CC BY 2.0
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133 Responses to The Good and Bad of Southwest’s EarlyBird Check-In

  1. SP says:

    I had to cancel my Southwest flight and guess what – YOU LOOSE THE EARLY BIRD FEES. Something to keep in mind.

    • Another GOOD reason not to pay any extra fees to ANY airline. I understand that US AIR made a fortune last year in extra fees. I think they were the industry leader in those “ill gotten” profits.

  2. Mike says:

    Funny that I just saw a post from this blog for the first time since I posted weeks/months ago. I just had my first really bad experience with the early bird deal. I went to Vegas this past weekend. I’d booked the flights months ago as I normally do, especially for a popular destination. As is usual, I paid for early bird. Anyway, we got to the airport for our flight home and to our surprise, we had seats B15 and B16. We’d never not had an A group seat with early bird check-in. I went to the gate agent to politely ask for a refund and was treated rather rudely by her. I asked for a supervisor and when one arrived I explained that I realize early bird doesn’t guarantee A group, but since I’m getting no value for my $10 I’d like my money back. Although she was nicer, she was of no help. All she could tell me was that “A listers” got preference over me (someone who flies nearly every month on Southwest) and that an A group number is not guaranteed by early bird. “A lister” or not, I paid for a service; an upgrade if you will. If they don’t have enough spots left to issue “A group” numbers, then they shouldn’t. Other airlines don’t do that. Try using your frequent flier miles for good seats on full flights. You can’t do it. Paying passengers get first preference. Southwest should adopt the same policy. I have a problem with people being granted “A list” status who didn’t actually pay for their own tickets to begin with. If a company paid for someone’s seat, why should that person reap the reward? I pay for my own seats and for all of the 7 members of my family and even if I pay for only 2 round trips, my cash outlay dwarfs that of the corporate frequent flier’s entire year. I don’t mind the company itself getting the reward credit to dole out as it sees fit, but I shouldn’t be made to wait behind someone who didn’t earn it. I got even more livid when the supervisor told me that there are a lot of government workers in Reno who use the reward travel to go to Vegas. Yep, I”M paying for federal government flunkies to party in Vegas with MY tax dollars and THEY are ahead of ME in line! Disgusting!

    When it comes right down to it, the only reasons most people even care about when they board on Southwest is so they can sit together if they’re in a group or so they can get space in the overhead storage. The overhead storage thing could be solved if Southwest would live by their own rules. If they enforced the size limitations for carry-on bags, the whole issue would go away. People are allowed to skate on this, even though Southwest allows 2 free checked bags (their best promotional tool). I get really sick and tired of watching morons trying to jam a steamer trunk sized suitcase into the overhead while everyone waits behind them and then has no room for their own normal carry-ons. What’s worse is when they try to take down the 50 lb. Godzilla bag without killing anyone. The flight attendants watch and do nothing. The 20 or 30 minutes the steamer trunk people save by not checking luggage is then eaten up by waiting for them trying to get on and off the plane. It’s true insanity.

  3. MIKE says:

    Mike just so you know corporate travelers “dwarf” what you would pay on 14 roundtrip tickets. Without corporate travelers your cost would go through the roof. Business travelers book late and pay alot higher price thats where the airline profits come from.

  4. Mike says:

    Boo hoo…worker bees. My heart bleeds purple peanut butter as they get a free flight at my expense!

  5. robert says:

    earlybird is f’n BS!
    just did it for the first time and I got position A56— SCREW THAT!

    last month same flight I did regular checkin & had position C36, upgraded at the gate 30 min before flight for $40 & got seat A4. early bird is a revenue scam!

    Southwest needs to dump this this friggin first come first serve and just let people select their seat at time of booking & board by zone. such a waste of time & energy.

    this choose your seat= slow boarding:
    first ones on take exit and isle seats and fill up overheads inconsistently–then everyone after needs to wait while the firsts on get up move aside and let people into the window/middle seats.

  6. Lara says:

    Just returned from a weekend to Key West. Did earlybird check in on both legs and my friends did not. Going out we got A16 & A17 while me friends were in C; however coming back they checked in online earlier than we did and got A while we were in B. I thought earlybird check in automatically checks you in 36 hours before your flight. My friends checked in 5 hours before flight??? No one at the airport could tell me why. We paid same fair and I fly more than they do so it was not a status issue….not cool Southwest, not cool!

  7. Mike says:

    I had to call Southwest the other day to book a flight because the website wasn’t working properly. I finally was able to get an actual Southwest employee to admit that they changed the language at some point. They used to guarantee “group A” now they say that you’ll get automatic check-in and get a number which is better than all except “A List” passengers. Whether or not they’re telling the truth, I agree that Earlybird is now “for the birds” and no longer worth the $12.50 (a recent $2.50 increase PER LEG). In fact, since Earlybird was an incentive until recently, I’m now looking at other airlines, as now the cattle call has returned for all practical purposes. I’d at least like to know that if I pay more I get more and if I check in earlier than Joe Shmo, my number should be better.

    Now that everyone knows about it, perhaps Southwest should just scrap the program. Maybe, for the sake of sanity and truth, they should simply offer an upgrade to their version of a first class for a bit more money and scrap the Business Select model. That way, it isn’t so sneaky or confusing. Frankly, if you’re holding a business select ticket, you’re still having to compete with connecting passengers, the handicapped and (hide your eyes because you might be blinded by the intense light) “A-Listers”.

    I also voiced my concern to the ticket agent on the phone that the gate agents need to enforce the size limits on carry-on luggage. I’m tired of delays waiting for Freddy Frequent Flyer to try and jam his steamer trunk into the overhead 5 minutes after the flight was supposed to have left the gate and then wait to get off as the flight attendants use the jaws of life to pry the thing out. Even if they don’t cause a delay, their lack of consideration also causes those who have a normal sized bag to have to give up leg room and put it under the seat in front of them.

  8. Marty S says:

    Southwest is hardly alone in being lax on enforcing carry on bag dimensions . ALL the airlines do a shitty job at this IMO.

    • Mike says:

      Agreed, Marty. But at least Southwest doesn’t charge for checked luggage (2bags). Therefore, the offenders have no excuse and neither does Southwest.

  9. Mary says:

    I purchased three seats on a southwest flight, with early check in, on of the 3 of us is “a customer of size”, one a child of 12yrs.the other an average size adult, we want to sit together. Will the person of size still be required to meet their policy for COS if the second seat is for a child?

  10. Ken says:

    I keep seeing people talking about buying EB check in and then checking themselves in and priting their BPs. Isn’t SW supposed to AUTOMATICALLY check you in so all you’d have to do is go to your SW account, sign in and then print your BPs?

  11. Gary says:

    Ken, here’s the reason. Southwest won’t divulge HOW they pick your EB seat#. It’s a given if your not a business or A list that you won’t get A1-15. After that, let’s say 50 people paid for EB. If you believe that EB purchasers ALWAYS board ahead of non-purchaser ( I don’t) how do they decide which buyer gets seat A-16 and who is stuck (?) with B-5? Remember, they let family boarding on after A but before B. Do they go by when you purchased your ticket? Do they go by when you actually check in ? Do friends and family of employees get the 1st seats? Who knows, Southwest won’t tell, so your back to doing everything you can to try and get a better seat, which means paying the $12.50 each, AND checking in the instant the 24 hours pre-flight is reached. I don’t mind paying extra for a service, but sure would be nice to know the rules. Any former Southwest employees care to divulge the secret?

  12. Martin says:

    I just got the 12 dollar service thinking I could fly back into the country without logging in. NO SUCH LUCK. I paid 12 dollars and they still sent me notification to check in 24 hours before my flight. WHAT? I thought I payed so that I did not have to do the stupid check in from a foreign country.
    Nothing like wasting money……Never again Southwest.

  13. David says:

    I have always purchased early bird seats and until the last year have always been assigned a low A boarding number. However, this last year I have been assigned much higher numbers than usual. Once, I asked the people in front of me if they paid for early bird boarding, and they said that they did not. So I confirmed that I did not get what I paid for. When I asked a SW agent about it, she danced around the issue and never did give me a straight answer. Southwest is ripping me and others off, and I now fly on other airlines instead of SW when I can.

  14. Data says:

    I recently bought early bird checkin and when I got my ticket I was B-1. The lady at the counter said I would still get to pick a good seat. I got on and had to sit 3 rows from the back on the isle…which wasn’t too bad (I thought) since it was almost a 6 hr flight. Well guess how many crotches ended up in my face because there was only one bathroom in the back and people were waiting in line?!? Never again will I pay early bird checkin. When I boarded almost every seat was taken cuz it was a smaller plane ????????

  15. Nate says:

    Purchased EB for flight from STL to MCI tomorrow. Just checked in and got B-2. If there is no value, there is no reason to pay extra. It’s that simple.

  16. MaryAnn says:

    I don’t know why SE just doesn’t have you pick a seat when a ticket is purchased on line. I once had a person of size sitting next to me. I could not change my seat because it was a full flight. I complained to SW and told them I didn’t pay half price so I shouldn’t have had to share y seat and space. I avoid flying SW whenever possible. Jet Blue is so superior and their ticket prices are about the same.

  17. Mike says:

    I know that there’s nothing that can be done about the “larger” people sitting next to us. Southwest IS a crapshoot, plain and simple. I do think they need to reconsider an alternative to “earlybird”, however. When it started, it was a couple of dollars cheaper per leg and you were guaranteed an “A group” boarding pass. Obviously, that’s all changed now. The $25 you pay for a 2 leg earlybird is no longer really a value, but a wager that’s slightly in your favor.
    My idea is simple. The first 5 rows of every flight would be reserved for SW’s version of first class. You’d pay the same as business select, which would now be eliminated, as would earlybird. Also, these would be off-limits to those who want to use frequent flier points, as those people can fly free on occasion, which is a benefit unto itself. Buying first class would, however, enable faster accumulation of points. Those sitting in first class would get priority boarding, a RESERVED overhead space and the express lane for security check.. All the drinks would be free and they’d get an extra snack, similar to what the other airlines do and it would be fully refundable. All other group boarding would be done on a first come, first served basis with none of their current trickery or favoritism. Earlybird is pretty much a racket. I only care about it if I’m flying with a large group or have a heavy or larger carry-on which must be stored in an overhead. A new reserved-seat first class is really what they need.

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