There is very little that preoccupies Southwest travelers’ minds more before a flight than wondering if they’ll be able to get the seats they prefer. Southwest is now rolling out a new way to put people’s minds at ease… if they’re willing to chip in to fight COVID-19. Say hello to Shoot’nBoard.
I doubt I need to re-hash how Southwest handles boarding, but if you’d like, you can read this post. In short, Southwest has open seating, so the sooner you get on the airplane, the better chance you have of getting the seat you want. That means the key is figuring out how to maximize your boarding position.
If you have a disability, elite status, or if you’re traveling with young children, you can improve your boarding position without any extra cost. Travelers who are willing to spend money can get EarlyBird boarding (usually $15 to $25 a flight) which moves you ahead of the peons who won’t pay and have none of the conditions listed above. It doesn’t guarantee a position, however. Lastly, travelers can buy one of the top 15 spots at the gate if they aren’t taken.
Those all have their limitations, so it was with great interest when I saw that Southwest was introducing a new way to jump the line. All you have to do is offer to help disinfect the aircraft before the flight. What fun is flying if there isn’t a little risk, right?
Delta is rolling out its Delta Clean program to promote its new standards, and now Southwest is stepping up its game as well. Unlike Delta, however, Southwest needs your help.
The way it works is this. Southwest is offering 4 spots on every flight for travelers who are willing to board as soon as the last flight is emptied out. Travelers will each be given one of those cool disinfecting guns and will be assigned a quarter of the cabin to disinfect. I was able to check one of these out at the airport.
Once you finish, the flight attendants will board and the gate agents will take the guns. You’ll then be able to pick any seat you want before any other boarding begins.
I asked CEO Gary Kelly why they couldn’t just have cleaning crews handle this, and he explained:
At Southwest, our people are our single greatest strength and most enduring longterm competitive advantage. We don’t want to see them get sick, so we’re doing everything we can to prevent them from being exposed to this coronavirus.
I pushed Gary why it was fine for passengers to do it but not employees. He responded:
Well, passengers aren’t being forced to do it. They’re volunteering if they want, and in exchange they get a great boarding position. Seems like a great option to me. Besides, we’ll give them a squirt of hand sanitizer once they’re done, so they should be good.
Passenger rights advocates immediately condemned the move with the exception of Bill Elliot. As a frequent Southwest flier, he began to soften quickly.
It is an outrage to think that Southwest would put profits over people. If it wants to protect employees, it should be hiring contractors to do the disinfection instead of getting travelers to do it for free. But, wait, did you say you get to board before everyone else? Like even before Business Select? So I’d have a good shot at seat 12A? I mean, I guess I could wear a mask….
I tried to take the temperature in Washington over this move, and I was surprised to find no real objection. A terse response from the DOT simply stated that “if Southwest is doing it, it must be the right thing.” Congress also seemed uninterested in the change. Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) had his office tell me “since they let me board first anyway, I really don’t care.”
Southwest’s employees naturally like the move. Lyn Montgomery, the president of Southwest’s flight attendant union, said she supported this plan with conditions, and figured that the membership would agree. “Y’all know flight attendants were cleaning the cabin in between flights outside of our contract rules, right? We definitely aren’t going to pick up a disinfecting gun. But, you know, we should still get a massive pay raise to compensate us for this.”
I was curious about the operational impact here, figuring this would increase turn times. It won’t. Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Watterson told me they haven’t had to increase turn times at all since most of the airline’s flights have only 30 people on them anyway. “I was thinking of going back to 10 minute turns, but this seems like a better plan. We have so many airplanes sitting around that we don’t need fast turns anyway.”
To me, that seems like it should greatly reduce the value of the program if the airplane is empty. Who cares about pre-boarding? Chief Marketing Officer Ryan Green was very open with me.
This isn’t about rational behavior. This is about buying an airplane ticket. You tell someone they can board early and they lose their damn minds like they’ve won the lottery. We expect Shoot’nBoard will increase our customer satisfaction scores as long as they don’t actually come down with COVID-19 before they take the survey.
The new policy goes into place Monday, and the four spots will be filled in the order of request. Travelers can sign up for their flights at the time of booking. For those already booked, it can be added to existing bookings any time at southwest.com/aprilfools. But see, that’s not a real website, because… look at the calendar.
It’s tough to be happy about much today, but.. happy April Fools Day.