Southwest Opts for Bingo Seating


Southwest has spent the last year trying to decide whether to keep open seating (take any seat when you board) or switch to assigned seating (seat number given to you in advance) like every other airline. Today, they made their decision. What is it?

Bingo seating

Ok, so nobody is calling it Bingo seating yet, but I’m hoping the name catches on. 07_09_20 southwestboardingThey’ve tried a million different ways to explain how it works, but I think the most effective is their Boarding School site. (That’s also where I took the picture from at left.) Let me try to give a brief summary.

Instead of checking in and getting an A, B, or C pass, you’ll actually get a letter and number combo. If you’re the first person to check in, you’ll get A1 (mmm, steak sauce). If you’re the 20th, you’ll get A20. The A group goes all the way up to 60, so if you’re the 61st person to check in, you get B61 (Bingo!). B goes up to 120, so then if you’re a real slacker, you’ll get C121 all the way on up. Almost all of Southwest’s planes seat 137 so the worst you can get is C137. There are 25 planes that have only 122 seats, so there will end up being only 2 lonely people in the C group on those.

I think images really can help you understand how things work when you get to the gate. 07_09_20 wngateTake a look at that drawing up top as well as the photo at right that was taken at San Antonio. See, they’ve been testing the idea there and my friend, Towers and Tarmacs blogger Benet Wilson, took this shot when she flew threw.

First, people with disabilities and unaccompanied minors board. While this happens, they call the A group (all 60 of them) to hop up and stand by the sign that has their number. As you can see, it’s divided into groups of 5 people, so you don’t need to get in line until they call you. When everyone in the A group is standing, they open the doors and everyone walks straight down the jet bridge on to the plane, free to take any seat they’d like, as long as they give it back after the flight.

Then, while the B group is getting their act together, families with small children get to board. Yup, that’s right. All those families that jump to the front of the line pretending they need extra time when they really have a 12 year old son who is faster than they are . . . don’t get on first anymore. Oh, you can always just check in early to get on early, but if you don’t and you’re a family, you’ll hop on after #60. Unless there are a lot of through passengers sitting on the plane from a previous flight, there will still be plenty of open rows for families to sit together at that point. Not sure how they’ll handle it if there are a lot of people onboard already. That might get ugly.

Once B gets on, the C stragglers get up and grab the remaining middle seats next to the two large people in the last row. Sucks to be them, but if you get a C boarding pass, you just don’t care enough anyway.

If this explanation didn’t work for you, try this link or the Southwest blog post, both of which give you other ways to understand what they’re doing.

So what do I think? I like it a lot.

The biggest issue with Southwest right now isn’t open seating. It’s the cattle car mentality of standing in line for an hour before your flight. I mean, remember when you could only check in at the gate? People would line up well over an hour before the flight to get their plastic boarding card. Then they’d go wait in line for another hour at the gate. Not worth it. This system basically takes the lines out of the equation because there are only 4 other people in your individual group. You don’t gain anything by standing there.

Now I’m not sure how they can enforce this – it’s just going to be the honor system I suppose. But peer pressure will probably play a part as well. Not even back cutsies for your friends will happen here. The angry mob behind won’t allow it. And according to Southwest’s tests in San Antonio, they say this actually saves them a minute or two over the current system. Fantastic.

The test that happened in San Antonio is now permanent. You’ll never see the old boarding method there again. But the rest of the system won’t see it happen until early November. I assume that’s how long it’ll take to get all those line placeholders constructed . . . and the bingo cards.

Southwest did leave the door open for further enhancements down the road. Lots of speculation is out there about what that means. It could be a “pay for A” type of model where a small fee gets you to the front of the line. But one thing is clear – there won’t be any assigned seating for a long time.

7 comments on “Southwest Opts for Bingo Seating

  1. I wonder how this will work everywhere i mean in grade school kids couldn’t line themselves up properly by number

  2. Well, I like this. I’ven’t flown Southwest, but hearing about the cattle call boarding just kinda scares me. I’m one of those who doesn’t get out of his seat on other airlines until my row/boarding group is called..

    The one worry I’d have from an operations standpoint is the time it takes to “reload” the line. Sure the jetbridge acts as a queue, but do you wait until there are five people in line in 1-5 if 5-10 are full? This is going to introduce some tricky situations into the boarding process. I don’t know of another airline that separates their passengers into such small boarding groups. SWA has gone from three boarding groups per plane to 28 per plane! Thats quite a switch..

    I wish them well with their endeavors to mature the airline into its next era.

  3. Any airline that has to “teach” consumers how to board ts airplanes has probably designed a flawed process. For an airline that focuses on simplicity in so many aspects of its operations and business, this seems to be overly complex.

    It still doesn’t address WN’s primary product deficiency for me, personally: lack of assigned seating. I want to choose my seat at time of booking.

  4. I live in SA and it failed on the family part especially over the summer months with lots of families and strollers, who cares let them go first. Carseat and stroller folks were pretty upset on a through flight that was full and planes were late, I experienced it on 3 of 4, so someone cooked the books for Gary Kelly to think that is faster. Staying with Gary, he had a public apology for the skirt girl as he said SWA never should have dealt with her that way and took away her “Freedom to move about the country” well said Gary, but with your Bingo Seating you took away my freedom to move about the country and if I choose to get to the plane 3 hours before the flight and had an A pass and wanted to wait in line that was my choice, but you have caved into whiners and making us all become lemmings. SWA had a unique flair and with Herb and Collen going I think this guy will ruin the airline. Many business men I spoke with have one question, what airline out there besides SWA can you walk up and be able to get a ticket for under say $650rt, answer None, so Gary a lesson for you, If it is not broke don’t fix it! I can’t wait to fly and have a connection and have A3 and the connection is late and I get to my gate in BWI and say they are boarding the C group, you better wait till I get there or I will demand everyone off so I can get my A3 seat. You should have seen SAT this summer too, no place to sit as they took out seats at the gates, and the idea of freedom to move about the terminal is a joke too. Should look at TPA and other airports that adapted to the old cattle call and arranged the seats in 3 rows from A, B, C and you all sit and wait or a few would stand, no cattle call there the past few years, Hey Gary get out of the office and get out in the field like Herb did, you might learn something and see that when you allow your employees to make decisions they work. Oh well. One last thing, before looking to go international, how about getting to all 50 states, like break into MSP and break it up. Oh that is right that goes back to example on business fares that are cheap, you won’t see a commercial on that cause it is an unwritten secret in the CEO world of Commercial avation that little secret is between them. Good luck it will be a fun Holiday season with Bingo Seating.

  5. i like this!! i fly 2x a month. the standing in line to get on, and then out of the blue i give birth to some 60yr old that wanted to stay seated the whole time attaches themself to my hip like they are with me.
    i think that people that need the xtra tome because of d/a should then get off last. its so funny to watch them run off the plane but walk like a gimp to get on.

  6. One of the smaller airlines (Eastwind) used this method with great success. It actually had the side effect (advantage) of getting people to the airport (before 9/11/01) earlier and with less delays at boarding.

    Once you got your number (they didn’t need the letters), you were free to go and do anything else you wanted until flight time.

    At flight time they called the numbers in groups of 10 and boarded in that order with open seating. The worst you could do was to be 9 people behind where you showed up in the check in.

    Easy to control, easy to handle, simple to manage. I was fond of it.

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Cranky Flier