I just returned from flying from Oakland to Portland, & Portland (via Albuquerque) to Tampa by Southwest. This was the first time I experienced your "first come, first served" policy. Personally, I found a lot of manipulation by passengers & in the instances I observed, & did not see it saving much time, even for the airline.
We (my wife & I) arrived at Oakland a good 1.5 hours before the flight, & were assigned with group B. At the gate, three rows designated A, B, & C were cordoned, so at least they were defined. We actually ended up getting a decent seat in the first row. Because of that, I did not get to see much interaction in the rest of the aircraft.
On the flight from Portland, it was quite different. We arrived 2 hours & 15 minutes before flight time, but were still placed in group B. This meant to get in group A, at least some passengers had to arrive at least three hours ahead of schedule. That's a long time to be waiting in airports, especially if you're in several segments on Southwest during your travel.
Some of what went on I didn't piece together right away. First, there were no roped cordoned areas, making the lines less discernible & enabling some persons to look as though they were with others if they wanted to slip in ahead (I don't know if this was actually done, but it was certainly possible). Secondly, there were actually four lines, the first being comprised of old & disabled (I'm 70, but very healthy). It occurred to me that if I just brought an aluminum crutch with me, both of us might have been in that line (is there any confirmation of actual medical condition?).
This time when we boarded, a very distinct pattern was displayed. Row after row of seats had the inside & outside seats occupied. Two that we tried to sit in only had books or bags on the outside seat, & the women who sat at the windows indicated they were "saved." But the most cunning trick of all was achieved by the young couple who sat in the first row on the left, probably the seats with the most legroom in the aircraft.
They sat in aisle & window seats in the row. Someone had put luggage in the rack above my seat, so I tried to put my luggage in the rack above theirs (we were able to move forward when most passengers deplaned in Albuquerque). The woman looked at me & said, "We need that space for our luggage." I immediately wondered why, & when I looked down I saw that they had piled luggage & a salad wrapped in plastic on the middle seat between them. It was the perfect deception. People entering the aircraft are obviously looking around for seats, & quite ready to move by for another opportunity; the subtle slight intimidation of such an "occupied" seat provides an excellent chance that, if the flight is not full, it might well be the last remaining seat. They pulled it off. I only saw one other empty seat on the plane, but the two of them practically traveled "first class" compared to others ( I must say I found your seats very comfortable &, since I never keep anything more than a book to read with me, there was plenty of leg room).
The amazing thing was those seats were the most visible to the flight attendants, & I don't think they ever caught on. As for the others, in retrospect I surmise this is what they were doing: it is quite onerous (& genuinely tiring for some) to stand in line to ensure better seating (especially when there is comfortable seating with waiting passengers right next to those standing), so I think these couples may "rotate" or spell each other off. The first one on then grabs a row & shoves something on the aisle seat, telling those following that it is "saved," giving time for the latter to arrive. Then they occupy aisle & window seats, just like the other couple I mentioned. Anyone not traveling alone is going to pass them by. If & when a single passenger decides to take the seat, they probably have pre-decided which two they prefer, so they occupy those & relent the other.
Becoming aware of this selfishness took away from an otherwise enjoyable flight. If I thought the practice were continuing, I probably would be unlikely to fly Southwest again (my wife feels the same way). By the way, at Portland the system did not seem to be achieving your objective. Boarding was not started until 10 minutes before scheduled takeoff, & then the attendants had to badger passengers to hurry to make up for what was obviously someone else's error.
I have two suggestions to eliminate this problem. The first, obviously, is that while occupying the aircraft seating, no luggage or other materials be allowed to be placed on a seat (this of course should be coupled with emphasis that "first come, first served," means exactly that). Only people can occupy seats. If this were done, by guess is that couples would sit together, reducing the likelihood of shuffling when the third person arrives, & saving time.
The second is, if you still find more advantages in this process, instead of issuing boarding passes with assigned seats, you assigned them with a letter followed by a number, designating the order in which they checked in (A-1, A-2, A-3, etc., i.e. their place in the line). That way on any given flight, people could still sit & relax, read, sleep or whatever. 10 minutes before boarding, you simply announce that lines should be formed according to letter & number. That should give plenty of time for people to get in order, & no one would have to stand for 20 minutes or more, or spell each other off & possibly create controversy. When it's time to board, they go letter & number sequentially. Anyone with a pass but not in the area when boarding begins simply defers their place in line.
It would take some getting used to. There could still be grumbling, but probably overall it would lessen dissatisfaction. It also reduces the variables for the passenger (when you arrive at the airport & when you get in line) from two to one. I have lived in or visited at least 25 different countries, & Americans are better "line-formers" than most. Enforcement of the other aspect could be stated in check-in material or on the boarding pass, as well as announced. Its effectiveness would have to be enforced by attendants, but no one could argue that it wasn't fair.
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