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Southwest Airlines’ Boarding Anarchy: When Rules Don’t Rule the Gates

If you’ve ever flown Southwest, you’re probably familiar with their rather unique approach to boarding. It’s a free-for-all, where you’re assigned a boarding position (A, B, or C) and a number, and you’re left to fend for yourself when it’s time to claim your seat. There are no seat assignments, so whoever physically gets to a seat first can sit down and claim it. Sometimes people try to save seats for friends and family with later boarding positions, or they’ll “save” the middle seat in hopes of keeping it empty. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of this “Hunger Games” style scramble for a seat, but it’s the price you pay for the airline’s (allegedly) low fares and free checked bags (despite the fact most other airlines will give you this for simply holding a $95 credit card). You either love it or you hate it. I tend to fall into the latter category.

One of the main reasons I avoid flying Southwest is their obnoxious first-come, first-served seating policy. You have to check in EXACTLY at T-24 to avoid the dreaded C boarding group and the possibility of a middle seat. Even if you do manage to check in at the right time, the notion of a true first-come, first-served setup isn’t entirely accurate. You’re still positioned after Business Select, Elite Members, and those who paid up for EarlyBird check-in. And good luck with that, because it’s only offered on select flights now. You can’t win.

But let’s talk about the real issue here – Southwest’s gate agents and their enforcement of the boarding process. According to a recent Reddit thread, it seems that some passengers are taking matters into their own hands. People with B and even C boarding positions are sneaking into the A line and getting away with it. How is this happening? Do gate agents just assume everyone is lined up where they belong, and only listen for the scan beep? It’s a valid question. Clearly their gate agents have an issue not going to la la land during the boarding process, as a stowaway recently got past Southwest gate agents, only getting caught as a result of the flight being completely full.

Some travelers have reported instances of gate agents actually checking and enforcing the boarding order. So, it’s clear that there are still some gate agents out there who are doing their jobs. But the real problem is the inconsistency. Some gate agents follow the rules, and others seem to let things slide. The honor system simply does not work in this setting – people will take advantage of it.

To be sure, Southwest is far from the only airline with lax enforcement of boarding order. However, the impact on passengers is much more severe on Southwest, as combined with its open seating policy, boarding order determines not when you’ll reach your preferred seat, but if you’ll get a desirable seat at all. On airlines with more civilized boarding procedures, I actually prefer to be one of the last to board, and take the “now boarding” push notification as a sign I should finish up one more drink at the lounge. Doing this on Southwest, however, would all but guarantee a dreaded middle seat near the aft lavatories.

Southwest’s unique boarding system isn’t the only thing that’s been causing headaches for passengers lately. The airline has faced operational challenges, including a full-scale network meltdown over Christmas 2022. They’ve tried to make amends with changes to their Rapid Rewards program and joining us in the 21st century with baggage tracking, but it’s clear that there are still issues that need to be addressed.

So, what’s the solution here? Either gate agents need to do their jobs and enforce the boarding order consistently, or the software used to scan boarding passes needs to be changed to deny premature scans. It’s not rocket science. If you try to board before your group is called, you shouldn’t get that loud chime indicating it’s okay to board. And for those passengers who think they can game the system, shame on you.

Southwest’s boarding process is chaotic, and it’s exacerbated by inconsistent enforcement. It’s time for the airline to step up and ensure that the rules are followed, or they risk alienating even more passengers. After all, if you wanted to play games, you’d go to the casino, not the airport (I suppose it’s fitting that LAS is a quasi-hub for WN?).

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