How Southwest Determines Your Boarding Card Number, and How You Can Now Jump the Line for $40

In the wake of Southwest announcing that you can now jump to the head of the line for $40 a person if there is room, I’ve received a lot of questions about just exactly how the Southwest boarding process works. I think my favorite was from someone in New York who is used to flying AirTran but just had her first experience on Southwest.

I forgot to do the 24 hour checkin yesterday, but remembered about 4 hours prior and did so from my phone figuring I’d still be OK by beating the airport checkin people. I was peeved to be B48, but figured that we’d be ok. I was surprised in line to see that there were only 3 people behind us for the entire plane. The flight was about 2/3 full. Is it really possible that the entire plane (less 3 people) checked in >4 hours prior?

Oh yes, it is possible. Long time Southwest loyalists might smirk a little at this, but keep in mind that in places like New York and Atlanta, flying Southwest is still a somewhat foreign concept. That’s going to be changing quickly as AirTran gets converted over. So, I thought it was time to break down how Southwest handles boarding. Let’s start with a graphic.

Southwest Boarding Process

Before I start explaining this little picture, I might need to back up a little further. Southwest does not assign seats. At all. It used to be back in the day that you could only check in at the gate. When you got there, it was common to find lines snaking out into the concourse. Plastic boarding cards were handed out beginning 1 hour prior to departure, and boarding was in groups of 30. Those in the first 30 could board in whatever order they lined up in. So you would get camps of homeless-looking people staking their spots. It sucked.

Eventually, this changed to the point where you could check in at the ticket counter and then online. The time limit backed up until it was 24 hours in advance. People were ready at 24 hours out to make sure they got the coveted boarding pass in the first group. But Southwest decided to make a change, so it created an entirely new system. And now it has added more and more to that system to get to the point where it is today. It’s pretty confusing.

The idea is that you get an alphanumeric pass that allows you to board in order. First it’s A1-60, then B1-60, and then C1- whatever is needed depending upon how many people there are. The first people on the plane get the first pick of seats. But there is a wrench here. If the airplane came from somewhere else before, then there could be people already onboard connecting through. They don’t have to get off. This happens a lot if you go to Dallas, because Southwest currently can’t fly nonstop to most cities in the US from there. (This changes in a year or so.) So your boarding number doesn’t give you a perfectly accurate count of what you’re going to find when you walk onboard. But you can be reasonably assured that you’ll get a decent seat if you’re in the A group. B group is iffy, depending upon how many people are with you and how many are already onboard. And C group? You’re screwed.

Now, let’s go through the order.

Big Money (Business Select)
Southwest’s fully refundable rack rate is called the Anytime fare. For $16 to $28 above that fare, you can buy Business Select. (It’s obviously a much bigger buy-up, sometimes hundreds of dollars, if you’re upgrading from a cheap Wanna Get Away fare.) This includes priority check-in and security, a free drink, and bonus points in the Rapid Rewards program. Most importantly, it gives you true priority boarding. They only sell 15 of these on each flight, so you are guaranteed to get something between A1 and A15 (exact number is determined by who checks in first), and that means you’ll get a good seat.

Today, if not all 15 are sold in advance, then those spots just remain empty. Southwest has now decided to change that. If the spots are open when you get to the gate, you can pay $40 to get one. You don’t get any of the other perks that come with Business Select, but you do get on early. This is the first time Southwest has allowed people to buy up to a better number after they know their position. So you can assume that people at the back are going to buy up regularly on this and A1-15 will now be full almost every time.

Kings (A-List Preferred) and Princes (A-List)
Those people who fly Southwest way too much are top tier elites, called A-List Preferred. If you earn 70,000 tier qualifying points or fly 50 one way flights, then you’re in. Those who fly slightly less (35,000 tier qualifying points or 25 one way flights), get A-List. The best you can get as an A-List Preferred is A16, and it will go as high as needed to accommodate them all. After all the Preferred people, then the regular A-List people get their passes. How the order is determined within each group is somewhat of a mystery. According to Southwest spokesperson Whitney Eichinger, “It varies from flight to flight and the exact science behind it is not something we share.”

After all the elites get on, then the EarlyBird people get their boarding passes. It used to be $10 each way above any fare you purchased, but it’s going up to $12.50 in a couple weeks. If you buy this, then you are automatically checked in 36 hours in advance and assigned a boarding pass. You have no idea what that will be in advance. If there are a ton of elite members onboard, you could easily find yourself in the B group. Heck, if everyone buys EarlyBird, you could be the last person on the airplane. How do they determine the order? Well, those buy the full Anytime fare get priority. Then all the other fares are put behind. Within each group, it’s determined by when EarlyBird was purchased. So if you buy it way in advance, you’ll have a better number than someone who buys it 2 days before the flight.

Eager Beavers (24 hours)
Once the EarlyBirds are done, then it’s time for the people who don’t want to pay but are sitting at their computer exactly 24 hours in advance to get the best number left. If nobody purchases EarlyBird and there are no elites onboard, that could theoretically be A16. But in reality, you’re really lucky if you get any kind of A boarding pass at all.

Swee’ Pea (Families)
Next up: families, although it’s not odd for the familes and Eager Beavers to switch. Southwest allows family boarding with small kids after the A group. So it’s even possible that with enough elite members, some of them will fall into the B group, behind families. It doesn’t matter what boarding pass the family has – they can board after the A group.

After all this, we have the end of the line, the people who didn’t pay for anything extra but also didn’t try to check in online early. In this group, you can also find people who had to make a last minute change, so not exactly slackers. Even if you’re an elite member, if you make a last minute change you’re going to be stuck getting on last. But primarily, it’s people who just didn’t really care or didn’t know how the system worked.

It’s somewhat amazing to me that a primer like this is necessary considering how simple Southwest’s system used to be. But clearly things are different these days. Any questions?

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