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To Assign or Not to Assign, That is the Question

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As many of you know, the question about whether to keep our open seating or to assign seats has been the Southwest question for the past couple of years.  Proponents of each process have been very vocal and heartfelt in support of their positions, and my post of last summer generated more than 700 comments (including those on a followup post).  To those who weighed in on this issue, thank you, and I assure you that your voices were heard. After much investigation, which included extensive "real life" testing in San Diego and San Antonio, we are ready to close the book on "the great seating experiment" and announce our decision.  (If we had drums, we could have a drum roll at this point, but we don't, so imagine one in your mind.)  Southwest has decided to keep open seating, but to adopt a new and improved boarding process.  These decisions were based on the input we got from you, our Customers, through this blog, written correspondence, and surveys taken during the tests.  While a substantial majority of our Customers prefer the ability to select their own seats onboard the aircraft, many of those folks have told us they don't like our existing boarding procedure that sometimes has Customers doing everything possible to be at the front of their boarding group.  Instead, many of you suggested, why not board the aircraft in the numerical order of the boarding pass? Well, we listened to you!  After initial tests in San Diego last fall, we conducted a full-scale evaluation in San Antonio last month, and the responses we received were very favorable.  Basically, the new boarding procedure divides the airplane into groups of five Customers, based upon the order in which a Customer checks in.  The first Customer gets an A 1 and so on, and they will line up to board in their group of five.  (To the extent possible, our gates will be modified with marked columns that reflect these new boarding groups.)  Customers will know where their boarding pass aligns in the process as soon as they check in, and this will eliminate the need to "camp out" and hold a spot in the boarding lines.  For a full description of the new process and to see the comments, click here to read Susie Boersma's August 23 post.              Our goal is to have the new boarding process up and running systemwide by early November.  I am fully aware that this news will excite many and disappoint others.  To those of you who are skeptical, I can only ask that you give the new boarding procedures a try.  After everyone gets used to it, I bet you will wonder why we didn't think of this years ago! (Click here to see a video of the new procedures.  Also, check out this helpful site.)
525 Comments
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My family recently (Dec 07) flew from Kansas City to Orlando for a long visit to Disney. I have always been a Southwest Airlines fan....until now. I purchased our tickets about 6 months in advance and went on-line 23 hours before our departure to print our boarding passes. We were in the bottom of the B group and could not sit together. This is a bad system for families. I choose Southwest for our trip to Florida because of their great service. However, we will not fly Southwest Airlines again unless it is our only choice.
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Your cattle car boarding process is anything but efficient. The first group boards and fills all the aisle seats and most of the overhead bins. The next group boards, and everyone on the aisle has to get up to allow them into the window seats, then sit down again. Finally the last group boards, and the aisle dance is repeated for them to get into the center seats, all the while luggage is shifted around and families bargain to try to swap seats here and there to get kids reunited with parents. The airline that does the best job with boarding is - amazingly - US Airways. They define boarding groups based on rear of the plane before front, and on wilndow seats before center before aisle. It's much more civilized and faster than Southwest. I wouldn't commend anything else about US Airways compared to Southwest though.
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After reading this blog, as parents of 2 young children, my husband and I have no interest in flying Southwest. It does seem as if that is your goal. So, you suceeded. Thankfully a friend warned me about your boarding policy before we booked our trip, which prompted to me to find this blog. I should note that I could care less about boarding first. I would rather be on a plane with a toddler for as little time as possible. I thought pre-boarding was for customers who took longer to get on the plane so that the other passengers wouldn't have to stand behind them as they put their wheelchairs and car seats in? Really, what other purpose is there for pre-boarding. Oh, I see, your self-centered passengers see it as a privilege. Hope those passengers who have such an intolerance for young children will never have to travel with one. Because I'll bet they won't be customers any more either. The types of passengers that you seem interested in making happy are definitely not ones that I'd want to sit next to. With children or not. I guess there is a market for miserable, "the world is in my way" travelers, and you decided to tap into that. This seems like a defiant airlines with a bad attitude. No thank you. Great business strategy! I'll be sure to let my friends, and co-workers know.
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Please, please, please! Your passengers need education. As a frequent flyer, I love the new system but most people at the airport are confused. Confusion leads to grumbling and grumbling leads to complaints. I'd suggest that you have to have all of your gate agents describe the new boarding procedures at least 60 minutes prior to departure of each flight (if you have asked them to do so, they are not doing it). I realize this is a lot of work, but your passengers are unhappy. Some airports have different signage and people don't know where to line up. The system is great, but a poor implementation will kill you. I know you have information on the web and on the boarding passes and when people go on line, but the majority of people don't read that information. I've been standing in line with ill-informed fellow flyers for weeks now and I find myself explaining the system so they are more relaxed. Help the masses that only fly once or twice a year - they just don't understand yet. I think that having the gate agent describe the numbering system, the process and the concept before each flight would make people much happier.
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Kids and pre-boarding. As a frequent flyer and business select member, I'd encourage you to let the people with kids board first. Trust me, us business flyers would rather see all of the kids settled in on the plane when we pick our seats versus picking a seat and having someone with 3 kids sit in our row, or worse, yet behind us. Let them get on. Those of us that do this all the time know the system and we will happily choose our distance to children based on our tolerance.
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I enjoy the new boarding procedure, it is done very well . My only complaint is that we need to do our return boarding pass at the same time . We are at usually another destination that we don't have computer access. This should be done all at the same time. Thanks
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I want to be able to fly SWA again. I was one of their biggest fans until they changed the boarding setup. I can no longer fly SWA and risk my 10 year old daughter or 6 year old son having to sit away from me, next to strangers because we couldn't get seats together. I saw this happen to a family on a flight to the West Coast. I was on another flight that was delayed about 20 minutes because no one would change seats to allow a mother to sit next to her toddler. It is a very poor system.
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If you are 6' something and need extra leg room it might be best to book your flight with an airline that has business class seating. If you are single and dislike children and are appalled that they might get "preferential treatment" on a flight perhaps you should book your flight with another airline that has business class seating. By the way, everybody that acts like its such a nuisance to sit beside a toddler on a flight, have you ever considered the fact that toddler is just as irritated about having to sit by you. And trust me, as a mother, we are certainly not thrilled about having to sit our children by weirdos. If its such a big deal that you get on the plane first and get the seats you want, perhaps you too should book your flight with an airline that has business class seating. Southwest is cheap, so it appeals to families.; If you want to play elitist, stop being a cheapo. More seats for those of us with less complaints!
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I tried Southwest for the first time this past week. With my wife and 17 year old stepson, we flew SWA for our vacation. I was impressed with the efficiency and friendliness of the staff. However, the seating process will have me looking elsewhere when we fly again. Despite booking our ticket 4 months ago, we were 3 of the last 10 people to board on our return flight. Middle seats for all 3 of us, at least until a SWA employee traded seats which allowed 2 of us to be together. By the way, I'm not sure why an employee was able to claim a seat on an oversold flight before we were. Also, I didn't notice that this seating policy decreased the aircraft boarding time. It seemed to take just as long as other flights I have been on. A group of 10 of us will be flying in a few months, but I can not recommend SWA knowing that my aging parents may be subjected to this same scenerio.
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My husband and I flew Southwest for the first and last time in August of 2008. The flight out wasn't too bad, although the in-flight staff could have been better. The flight home was horrible. Because we were at a hotel and didn't have access to a computer and printer, we had to wait until we got to the airport to check in. Even though we got their 4 hours early, we ended up in the 3rd group of borders. My husband had to sit at the back while I sat about half way. We only get to see each other once every four months so for us, this was unacceptable. Top that off with fligh staff that were far from cordial and I will never fly SW again nor recommend them to anyone. In fact, I've already encouraged several others to fly any other airlines and they all have. SW - you need to change your policies.
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Jules, I am so sorry that we created a bad impression with you, and I thank you for sharing your comments. Open seating works best for our Customers and operational needs, so it will probably be around for awhile. However, you don't need a computer nor a printer to check in online 24 hours in advance. If you have a PDA like a BlackBerry or an iPhone, you can check in at our wireless web site, http://mobile.southwest.com. Then all you have to do upon arrival at the airport is go to a kiosk and reprint your boarding pass. Brian
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I tell you a problem with not having assigned seating.... I like it if it actually worked but in my case it never does. For some reason John Burton is a common AMERICAN!!!! name that either terrorists or someone with bad intentions on an airflight uses. Yea!! for me, now instead of me being able to log in 24 hours ahead of departure and getting that A pass I have to now get up extra early head down to the wonderful airport and wait in the ridiculously long line to show that I am indeed just regular ol' John B. Oh and what does southwest say about all this. customer service says "Sorry there is nothing I can do, I don't know why this happens." They also say after you have been waiting in line for an hour at the airport and you get to the always pleasant counter person and I tell her "You need to verify I am who I am" she then tells you. "you're doing it wrong you don't have to wait in line" I say "I wish that were true" She then gets frustrated and then has to do work, wierd they pay her to do this? All-in-all I like southwest but sense they can not fix or do not care to fix my certain situation because my name is too common I will more than likely choose another airline next time. DING! you are now free to get frustrated, wait in long lines and get pour customer service.
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I love the "new" process. THANK YOU to who ever suggested it and to SWA for listening!
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SWA's policy of not seating parents with young children is very unsettling. As a parent I would not trust a complete stranger to help my child put on a oxygen mask should there be an emergency and the plane lost altitude for some reason. Look, I paid for economy tickets so I don't mind sitting in the back of the plane with my small children... as long as I get to my destination without having to worry about my children on the plane. Will it take a tragic accident or a lawsuit before SWA fixes this policy?.
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Great southwest! I just checked in on line and you put my 75 year old mother and me in group B while putting my 3 year old son in group C. How ya gonna fix that one? By the way, his age was entered when I booked the flight so you know he's 3. Maybe he can wait in line with all the group c people while we board ahead of him. Nice job!
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Nicholas, relax, we have you covered. Because your son is under age five , you can board after the A group. I hope you all enjoy your flight, and we can't wait to see you onboard. Brian
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it really is amusing reading some of these post and hearing families complain about the new preboard procedures. what gives families the RIGHT to board before anyone else. if you want an assigned seat together, fly another airline. southwest has an "open" seat policy. you either accept it or you don't.
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Open seating is fine for someone traveling alone, however, when flights are full/sold out it can make it difficult for a couple or family getting seats together. Yes, early check in is fine, but, that still may not be the answer. I feel seats assigned makes life easier for the passengers and airlines as well. My husband and I have been travel agents during the 70's and 80's and it was a pleasure assigning seats for our travel customers. We were assured they would not have to hassle at the airport. Also, it avoids any arguments among passengers, or any splitting up of families and etc....
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Gary, i am actually wondering( out of the random) what is the airlines plans for flying in and out of MHT(manchester boston regional airport) because i have noticed a major slow down at the airport, and i will miss the airlines bright daily servie their... i also noticed that at the same airport US Airways is slowy increasing it presences in MHT and that their flight numbers(based on amount of planes) and is very much coming close to southwest's number of flights.
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I fly Southwest frequently for business and pleasure. The lack of preboarding for families with children is short sighted at best. Fly with a couple of small children on a full, delayed flight and your "official" policy will change Southwest!
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I reviewed most comments on Assign or not to assign boarding seats as well as Boarding with kids. I admit, I truly hate the new policy. For many years, we traveled with Southwest and loved it. When we had a family, we used the family with small children can board first system. This was great because we were able to board and be out of the way of everyone else. Business travelers did not seem to mind. However, during our last travel to and from Florida, I believe the new policy was put into place during that time of 2008. We sat together on the flight to Florida and dad sat between two business associates who talked over him the entire flight. Then the flight from Florida, was horrible. We all sat somewhere else (next a husband and wife, on another other isle between two friends, and again between two business associates who could not sit next to each other, but talked to each other the entire flight). What could I do. These were the only available seats left. The flight attendants saw no need that we should sit together. After the flight, I called Southwest to report this and I was told that changing the policy just for those with kids, will never happen. Besides, business travelers enjoyed the new system. Let me say this to everyone. I was once a business traveler as well. I understood Customer Service. There is a way to please everyone and keep customers coming back. Everyone have their own experience, but because of mine, I have not flown Southwest since 2008 and will not do so unless the policy of traveling with kids is changed. I have, however, flown with carriers that offer numbered seating to ensure that we are seated together. This is best for us.
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I would really like to see Southwest fly out of RFD ( Rockford, IL) to Las Vegas and Phoenix. People come from afar to use this airport because of free parking and convenience. Is this a possibility?