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.

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http://www.flickr.com/photos/majorvols/ / CC BY 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/42dreams/ / CC BY 2.0
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163 Comments on "The Good and Bad of Southwest’s EarlyBird Check-In"

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David SF eastbay
Member
They should have switched to assign seating a long time ago. They are no longer the new darling of the airways getting people off the Greyhound bus and into the sky and having their passenger herded onto the plane. They are to many airlines matching their fares who assign seats to show WN that people don’t want to be treated like livestock. At the least they can redo their fares to make each type a different benefit. Like if you buy a Y type fare you get all the bells and whisles they offer to the full fare passengers. The… Read more »
dan
Member

They should cap this at A now that I think of it, because of family boarding.

Brian
Guest

I am waiting for the “hidden fees” next. They kill the no fees promice so it is just a matter of time.

John
Guest

Perhaps there should be a selection at the time of purchase, where you select your group (A, B, C, and pay tiered pricing at the time. Eg, $20 for A group (capped at 60 people), $10 for B group, also capped, and C group could be free.

Jim
Guest

Except that, what if someone purchases earlybird 20 weeks before the flight and then, day before the flight, 60 A-Listers decide they all want to take that flight, too? The A-listers should have better priority as a token of appreciation for their outstanding loyalty. That’s why most of the suggestions to tweak this product in this article don’t work. However, 99 times out of 100, EarlyBird does (unless you’re the type to change your flight last minute, in which case, EarlyBird probably won’t transfer to your new flight).

Jared
Guest

How is this not a fee? Checking a bag so you don’t have to drag it through the airport (which sucks when you’re traveling with kids) is a value-added service, but people complain that that is a “fee.” This is just as much a fee as baggage fees are.

I still think this is a great idea, and why shouldn’t they try to get ancillary revenue – they were crazy to leave money on the table.

Oliver
Guest

@Jared — how is the “fee” you pay to fly on the plane not a fee?

Personally, I think the boarding system for SWA has gotten way too complex.

jaybru
Member
I can still remember way back when, Southwest was Southwest. Life was simple. You knew what you were getting and you accepted it or looked somewhere else. Now, WN seems to be saying, “Yes, we know things are screwed up, but with this new fee-based scheme, things will get better.” Well, I question that line of reasoning. Just fix the problem! I don’t think it really is that difficult to fix. WN is becoming like every other airline…”We know simply selling tickets won’t generate enough revenue, so we have to look for every possible anciliary revenue stream we can think… Read more »
Sean Yoda Rouse
Guest
I disagree that this guts Business Select. Let’s compare the options: Early Bird: Automatic Check-In 36 hours before flight time. [$10 Changeable but Non-refundable.] A List: Automatic Check-In 36 hours before flight time (before the Early Birds). Priority lane access at airport security (where available). [Must fly 32 one-way segments in a one-year length time span] Business Select: Guaranteed A1-A15 boarding spot (before A List and Early Bird) irregardless of booking time. Priority lane access at airport security (where available). One free drink. Rapid Reward bonus (amount depending upon trip length) [$15, $20, or $25 above fully refundable Anytime fare]… Read more »
Sean Yoda Rouse
Guest
Brett, You write: “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.” Remember that A Listers get checked-in before Early Birds. If I’m an A Lister, and book my flight at any time prior to 36 hours before scheduled departure, I get checked in before any of the Early Birds. That makes it impossible to assign a check-in position… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

@ Sean Yoda Rouse:

It still seems easier if they just go to seat assignments. Buy a ticket, pick a seat, and get on the plane. Very simple, it’s been done for decades, when will WN figure it out.

David SF eastbay
Member

John wrote:

Perhaps there should be a selection at the time of purchase, where you select your group (A, B, C, and pay tiered pricing at the time. Eg, $20 for A group (capped at 60 people), $10 for B group, also capped, and C group could be free.

If they don’t want to do seat assignments, this sure sounds easier. Let people decide how important it is to get on the plane sooner when they buy their ticket.

Jim
Guest

I almost like this way, except that there’s no way to know how many A-groups to sell because the number of A-List passengers and Business Select could change up until the last moments. So if all the A’s are bought up 20 weeks before the flight and I book my A-List ticket or Business Select ticket 4 weeks in advance, do I bump one of the A-group people? Or do I go to the back of the line? They would basically have to do without their business select and A-List Rewards program for this to be feasible.

david
Member
Personally I know my father will pay for this. He is soooo crazy with checking in with Southwest (pretty much the only airline he flies). He will get up at anytime. He will arrange his schedule to make sure he is at a computer. If he won’t be, he will call me and have me check in for him. If he doesn’t get that A (or at least a really low number B) he feels cheated. I have tried to explain over and over again that even if you are the last one in B, statistically, everyone has pretty much… Read more »
Jim
Guest

Have you ever boarded a Southwest flight? The aisle and windows are ALWAYS first to go. Middle seat for everyone with like B26 and lower, depending on how many disabled, families, and through/connecting passengers there are already on the plane.

david
Member

PS- seriously Southwest should use a sign like that. I fly quite a bit and still get confused where I am supposed to go when before boarding!

Consumer Mike
Guest
A fee is still a fee by any other name. Unfortunately this appears to be the begining of the end for Southwest as we knew it. Like any other airline, once the consumers accepts this new charge without too much noise, the temptation for additional fees (revenue) is sure to follow. Those of you soo willing to pay for “that added convenience” remind me of the story of the monkey that was caught because the temptation to grab the banana in the cage and not willing to let it go to escape. The success of Southwest was filling the need… Read more »
yo
Guest

Ya know, flying Southwest is like a Turkish prison, why try to appeal to a higher class.

But, Southwest is like a day at Club Med compared to Ryan Air or Cebu Pacific.

Consumer Mike
Guest

@ yo:
No argument. Ryan Air is the pits. There is no comparison between Southwest and Ryan. Many cities served by Ryan are captive to their service. Ryan has discovered a way to make passengers part with their money without the use of a gun.

Hope Southwest doesn’t go that low.

Allen
Guest

Cranky, I don’t get how the process is a tech issue. Either they write some code that ensures that anyone paying this fee is above C checkin or they don’t. It’s only a tech issue if they wrote the code but somehow it doesn’t work.

Jim
Guest

But what if, 48 hours prior to departure, sixty a-listers suddenly book that flight? You can’t write code that prevents people with loyalty benefits from booking the flight after all the A-groups and B-groups are sold. Well, you can… but that wouldn’t be a nice way to treat the most loyal fliers.

Allen
Guest

I’d assume the deal is that UAL and CO barely fly out of JFK,especially compared to JetBlu, which is where Lufthansa has a flights, right? Either way, Lufthansa is likely also hedging their bets. It’s hard to picture UAL being around in it’s current form much longer.

Allen
Guest

Doh! Sorry, I’m too big of a dolt to catch those things. I should have saw it. After all, it’s a common excuse companies use all the time even when it’s B.S.

gersov
Member

So what happens next year when the codeshares with Volaris and Westjet kick in? Where will their connecting customers be dumped in the SW queue? Westjet has an entirely different seating policy – it assigns seats and charges for advance seat selection ($10, or $15 for a bulkhead row). And what happens if you are ticketed SW and connect on Westjet – will you pay for EarlyBird preference on your first flight only to be dumped into a middle seat on your Westjet flight?

The mind boggles.

Sean Yoda Rouse
Guest

CF wrote:

Sunroof wrote:
So what happens next year when the codeshares with Volaris and Westjet kick in?

Great question, Sunroof. Even without EarlyBird boarding, they would have had to face this issue. Not sure what they’ll do, but undoubtedly it’s going to be a big one to address.

How’d it work with the ATA codeshare? I know that was before Bingo Boarding, but I seem to recall that ATA had assigned seating.

james
Guest
I just flew Denver-Orlando and return for the weekend. Both times I checked in exactly 24 hours ahead (about 15 minutes in) declined the $10 free, and was position A-50 outbound and A-43 return. I ended ended up sitting on aisles in row three each time. Granted Orlando has more family travel where a group is less likely to pay $10 times however many members, and fill in rows needed rather than individual seats, but I was surprised at getting the third rowing being the fortieth person. I haven’t flown Southwest in years, (preferring UAL for miles,) and found both… Read more »
Em
Guest
My main reason for flying SWA is NOT having to fly out of JFK, the second is price. I think all the recent changes are annoying and soon SW will be like Jetblue or whatever. This fee that cahrge. The previous postr is correct when they say that if the public continues to bite every carrot they dangle and fork over cash, the new fee “choices” will just continue. As for this new check-in, it was started why we were already on vaction & my husband left early…he got A59. I NEVER got a number so high & that is… Read more »
Emily
Guest

I’m a frequent flier that recently switched to SW from AA b/c I could never get a good seat on AA due to me booking flights at the last minute for work and AA overbooking flights. Now, I’m going to pay 20 bucks more to get a decent seat and my bag on…which will be up to 80 dollars a month for me in fees.

I can also see an issue of people trying to save seats where just one person in the party upgrades.

Ugh…Shame on Southwest.

Lynnieb
Guest

Today was my first check-in since the new early bird was announced. Checked-in exactly 24 hours before my flight tomorrow got A-22.
I agree they need to create some sort of cap on the number to buy, I’m not willing to pay $10 and still possibly end up in C…

robert s
Guest
Since SWA EarlyBird (EB) appears to already be popular on some flights, perhaps the fee should be tweaked for each market to ensure mostly high quality boarding passes. Note that the Business Select (BS) fare differential is route specific, and correlates only somewhat to route distance. (Compare PHX-LAS at +$30 BS vs Anytime with PHX-DEN at +$20, even though PHX-DEN is more than twice as far; perhaps PHX-LAS BS takeup is higher than PHX-DEN BS takeup.) It doesn’t make sense to limit EBs ahead of time, because you don’t know how many last minute Anytime fare and EB purchases there… Read more »
Tony
Guest

Ok so what happens when people start saving seats?

I mean if I have a family of five, why wouldnt I just buy one early bird and then save seats for the rest of my family? Who’s going to control this?

Jim
Guest

Happens. Not controlled. Thus far, though, I haven’t seen any fights break out in the cabin because of this.

Emily
Guest

If you are one of the ones that are not happy with the Early Bird fee, please make sure you contact Southwest through their website and let them know…the more the better.

David SF eastbay
Member

How many passengers would be tempted to pay $10 to reserve an early boarding pass on WN? According to a TripAdvisor.com poll of 1,200 respondents 61 percent said they are not at all likely and 17 percent said they are not very likely to purchase a reserve boarding pass. Only 12 percent said they were very likely to do so.

Sounds like business travelers and other people who think they are important will be paying the $10.

Suzanne
Guest
I liked the days when you just stood in line for hours. Then again, I witnessed two near fist-fights due to people cutting/sneaking into line so I do like the boarding numbers better. 1 Just Let it be or 2 Just raise all the ticket prices $10 or 3 Place line order by ticket price and checkin time, As cost more Of course, if a wanna get away fare meant C and a middle seat…I’d probably fly United unless southwest was waaaayyyy cheaper. (for the routes I fly, it is usually equivalent, now and again Southwest will have a sale… Read more »
Tanager
Guest

I just paid $20 for my son and I to have Early Bird checkin because we sometimes get separated and have to ask for assistance to get folks to move…I got B31/B32 for boarding and have done better without paying anything at all in the past. This is for a flight to Orlando, and I think spending that to almost end up boarding with the C group just plain stinks.

Ticked
Guest
Wow..I have a 7:25 am flight tomorrow. I logged into SW to get my boarding pass at exactly 7:25 and I ended up with A50! So not cool! Looks like I will be going back to the other airline I used to use and I will be assured of my aisle seat. I just read the info about early bird check in. I figured I would take my chances and just be sure to log on by 7:25. HAH! This whole process just reeks. So I’m A50 and how many preboards will be ahead of me?? SW, just either make… Read more »
Jason
Guest
I definitely have a comment. This service is not available when booking through Southwest Vacations, which is fine, but here is the problem: I am already holding tickets that I purchased before this new option was announced. Now I am stuck with probably not getting and A boarding pass (or getting a good seat as there will be tons of pre boarders). I will book directly through the airline next time so that I can use this option but it is BS that folks already holding tickets are getting screwed. I contacted the airline and they apologized, then gave me… Read more »
DH
Guest

If it works the way Southwest said it does, I like it.

AZ Traveler
Guest

Another flaw is that its a oer ticket fee. So if i am traveling with two friends, only one of us has to pay the $10 fee…then save a seats for our friends.

Ticked
Guest

Good luck saving seats! That could get ugly.

I have to admit, I broke down and paid the $10 for my return flight because I definitely didn’t want to get a B or C number and I would’ve been in a meeting at the time of the 24 hr boarding pass. As it turned out, my return pass was A19 but only 3 people boarded ahead of me. Where were the other 16? I will still think very carefully before booking Southwest again.

YYZVegas
Guest

Okay, so why are people complaining about the saving seats policy? It works just like it does when i’m travelling with people who have lower boarding priority than I do. If I’m the only one who bought the early-bird and my friends are further back in line, is it anybody’s business that i saved their seats? Just as if i had boarded as A40 and they were B20 i’m not going to sit by strangers just because my traveling companions were further back in line. To me this is a non-issue.

lazy
Guest

Does anyone know what determines the order of earlybird check-in at the 36 hour mark? Does it go by the date the ticket was purchased or by the date that the earlybird was purchased or by some other unknown process?

lazy
Guest

lazy wrote:
Does anyone know what determines the order of earlybird check-in at the 36 hour mark? Does it go by the date the ticket was purchased or by the date that the earlybird was purchased or by some other unknown process?

My understanding is that it is done in order or purchase.

In order of purchase of ticket or in order of purchase of earlybird?

Emily
Guest

For some reason I thought I read that it will be based on when you bought the earlybird pass and you will always be behind the other priorty boarding.

Just an fyi, I fly weekly and have never bought the EB and have always been lower then A32 when I check in on time. I have had other family members fly also and everyone has had A’s without the extra purchase.

Save your money.

Lisa
Guest
To expand on what a few commenters above said, I have a question…I purchased a ticket (using a reward coupon) for my 8-year-old son to travel with my mother who purchased a wanna-get-away or senior fare. If I pay the $10 EB fee for my son, will they actually make him board alone if my mom ends up in a later boarding group? I called SW to ask this question, and their answer was, “You must purchase it for everyone in the traveling party, otherwise they will end up boarding at different times.” I specifically asked if they would separate… Read more »
G
Guest

Encourage those line cutter fist fights. They’ll be detained and banned from the flight, leaving more open seats for everyone else. ;)

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